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Unusual inheritance battle highlights the importance of estate planning

Emma Weir

28th August 2019

A recent inheritance dispute between stepsisters revealed the perils of not planning your estate. It’s an interesting and highly irregular case, but one of particular significance for stepfamilies.

Earlier this month a high court judge ruled on the battle between two stepsisters – the offspring of Mr and Mrs Scarle. The couple were found dead in their property in 2016, having died from complications due to hypothermia.

As medical tests could not determine who died first, so began a dramatic court case between Anna Winter, Mr Scarle’s daughter and Deborah Cutler, Mrs Scarle’s daughter, who fought over who should inherit the couple’s jointly owned property.

Who’s heard of the Commorientes Rule?

The deciding factor in the case came down to a 100 year old law known as the ‘Commorientes Rule’ from the Law of Property Act 1925. This rule states that in cases of ‘simultaneous death’, i.e. when it cannot be determined who has died first, then the younger person should be presumed to have outlived the older.

The judge decided there was not enough evidence to overturn this presumption and so upheld the rule. Therefore Mrs Scarle was presumed to have outlived her husband, her daughter Mrs Cutler inherited the remaining assets, and Mrs Winter was ordered to pay costs.

What can you do?

To avoid such a situation happening to you, it’s vital to urge your family to plan their estate. A will detailing how assets should be divided on both first and second death will avoid long, costly and harrowing court cases such as this one.

We can help

We want cases like this to be extremely rare. If you have any concerns about your, or your parents’ estate, please call us. We’re happy to talk through in strict confidence and hopefully put your mind at rest.

Contact Emma Weir our LLP Partner and Mid Sussex Branch Manager on 01273 843405, or email her on

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