How does the law determine who inherits when two people die at the same time?
An inheritance dispute has made the headlines after two step sisters asked a court to rule on which of their parents died first.
Mr and Mrs Scarle had been found dead in their Essex bungalow by police. The cause of death was determined to be hypothermia. This gave rise to an important question, who inherits when two people die at the same time?
When married couples have mirror wills this isn't an issue. But Mr Scarle died intestate, without leaving a will, while Mrs Scarle’s will made no provision for her stepdaughter.
When dealing with inheritance issues following the death of two (or more) family members who do not have mirror wills it is often necessary to establish who died first in order to decide who inherits.
In the case of Mr and Mrs Searle it was not clear which of the two had died first. This led to a dispute arising between the sisters about who would inherit the family house.
Because the house was owned by the Searles jointly the law deems that it is passed from one co-owner to the other under the principle of survivorship. So if Mr Searle had survived his wife, even if only momentarily, then the house would pass to him and form part of his estate. If Mrs Searle survived her husband then the house would pass to her to then be dealt with in accordance with the terms of her will.
The crucial point was that one sister stood to inherit under the intestacy rules if Mr Searle was deemed to have died second, while the other sister would inherit under Mrs Searle's will if she was deemed to have died second.
The issue of who inherits when two people die at the same time is governed by section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925. This Act specifies that when two people die together and it is not possible to determine who died first, the younger is presumed to have survived the elder. In this case because Mrs Searle was younger than Mr Searle the house (and Mr Searle's estate) was demed to pass to Mrs Searle's estate, and from there her daughter Deborah Cutler would then inherit.
Mr Scarle’s daughter, Anna Winter, disputed this. She argued that because her stepmother's body showed more advanced signs of decomposition it was likley that her father had outlived her. If she was correct then he would have inherited his wife’s estate (albeit briefly) and it should then pass to her under the rules of intestacy. Deborah Cutler countered this on the basis that the difference in the rate of decomposition was due to a different microclimate in the couple's bathroom where her mother's body was found.
The dispute was taken to court where the judge concluded that there was insufficient evidence to show Mrs Scarle had died before her husband. Accordingly s184 of the Law of Property Act applied. Mrs Scarle was presumed to have outlived Mr Scarle as the younger of the two. Deborah Cutler inherited. Anna Winter lost out.