Court rules in parent death sequence case

The High Court settled a dispute earlier this month relating to the question of which parent died first, as reported in the Law Gazette

The dispute involved stepsisters, and the court ruled that the younger parent, Marjorie Ann Scale (69) outlived her husband, John William Scale (79). The law concerning jointly-owned assets—Section 184 of the Law Property Act 1925—presumes that the older person died first when it comes to cases where the order of death is not certain. The couple died of hypothermia at their Essex home almost three years ago.

Mrs Scale’s daughter, Deborah Ann Cutler, was supposed to inherit the couple’s Essex home and £18,000. However, her stepsister, Anna Winter argued that there was evidence to suggest Mrs Scale died before her husband, which would change the inheritance in her favour.

Decomposition rate

In the Scale v Scale judgement, the court heard Mrs Scale had suffered a brain haemorrhage almost ten years ago and this had affected her mobility. Her body had been “substantially further on” in the decomposition process when it was discovered. But experts argued the difference in temperatures in the rooms where the bodies of Mr and Mrs Scale were found might have affected the rate in which they broke down.

Judge Philip Kramer questioned whether the only evidence which would point “unequivocally” to the couple’s sequence of death was the relative differences in decomposition. He said he had two “not improbable explanations” for what had happened—one that Mrs Scale died first and the second that the toilet area where she was found had been warmer than the lounge, where her husband died.

He added that he was unable to discount the latter, and therefore couldn’t fairly draw the inference that Mrs Scale was the first one to die.

Case law WW2 bombings

Judge Kramer referred to case law from a 19th century shipwreck and what happened to bodies during the Blitz bombings that took place during World War 2.

Speaking to the Law Gazette, partner and will disputes specialist at the top 50 firm Shakespeare Martineau said this particular inheritance argument hammered home the need for people to consider whether property was owned as joint tenants or tenants in common. Properly drafted wills that cover all eventualities were essential, if someone wanted to ensure their wishes were fulfilled.

 

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