Simultaneous Deaths – Who Inherits?

The High Court is currently considering an interesting case based on the Commorientes Rule.

In October 2016, John Scarle (aged 79) and his wife, Ann Scarle (aged 69), died of hypothermia at their home. They each had a daughter from a previous relationship, and these surviving stepsisters, Anna Winter (daughter to John Scarle) and Deborah Cutler (daughter to Ann Scarle) disagree on who should receive the parents’ inheritance.

Each argue that their parent was second to die because after the first died, their estate passed to the survivor. When the survivor died, their respective daughter would then receive the full inheritance. So, if John Scarle died first, Ann’s daughter Deborah would inherit the full estate, but if Ann Scarle had died first, John’s daughter Anna would be the one to inherit.

Arguments have been made that there is evidence of Ann Scarle dying first, but these have been strongly rebuffed. A post-mortem is being undertaken, but if it remains unclear who died first, it is likely the court will need to consider the Commorientes Rule to settle the dispute.

The Commorientes Rule states that if two or more people die in circumstances where it is not possible to determine who died first, the deaths are presumed to have occurred in order of age, with the eldest dying first.

The rule is close to 100 years old and was frequently referred to during the ‘Blitz’ of World War Two to settle inheritance disputes if a family was killed by a bomb, as in these circumstances it was impossible to determine who died first and by extension, who would inherit the estate of the deceased. After this, most major cases citing the law pre-date the 1960’s.

If the Commorientes Rule was applied here, John Scarle would be deemed to have died first as he was older than his wife Ann, leaving Deborah to inherit the entire estate of both.

This is an interesting example of an old law still being relied upon today in an attempt to resolve uncertainty. Clearly, the stepsisters could not decide just to split the estate which is likely to have been the sensible option! A decision on the case will be made at a later date.

If you would like to discuss a contentious inheritance query, please get in touch with Hannah Johnson at our Bedford office, on 01234 270600.