Two Stepsisters; One Inheritance

You may remember the 2019 case of two stepsisters fighting over their inheritance?

It made the news for several weeks as the family dispute about who should inherit the estate played out in Court.

Sadly, when Mr and Mrs Scarle died, their bodies remained undiscovered for several days.

The administration of their estate depended on knowing who had died first. 

However, when they were found, it was not possible to establish for sure whether Mr or Mrs Scarle had died first.

There is a legal presumption that the older spouse has died first, and it is applied in rare cases like this one.

Mr Scarle did not have a Will.  His estate passed under the Intestacy Rules, so Mrs Scarle inherited everything he owned, even if she only outlived him for a few minutes.  This meant that when she died, Mr Scarle’s daughter from a previous marriage would inherit nothing at all.

Mrs Scarle did have a Will, leaving everything to her two children.  This included Mr and Mrs Scarle’s house and joint bank account which were worth about £315,000 in total. 

So, if Mrs Scarle had died after Mr Scarle, her two children would inherit everything.  If she died before Mr Scarle, her children would only inherit things she wholly owned.  The jointly owned assets would pass to Mr Scarle, and then go to his daughter, Anna.

Mr Scarle’s daughter Anna argued that her father had outlived his wife, but she was unable to prove it.

The Judge decided that the historic presumption should apply.

He ruled that Mr Scarle died first, because he was older.  Therefore Mrs Scarle had inherited Mr Scarle’s estate before she died, and everything would now be distributed under the terms of her Will.

Anna received nothing.

Why does all this matter?

If Mr and Mrs Scarle both had Wills, they would both include a survivorship clause. This clause states that one must outlive the other by a fixed period, usually 28 days, in order to inherit their estate.  Then provision is made in the Will for what should happen if the spouse does not survive for this period.  This would have allowed both Mr and Mrs Scarle to leave their own assets to whomever they chose.

Mr and Mrs Scarle should have been advised together, rather than just one of them having a Will. This would enable them to discuss their wishes for their estate, and for their Will writer to explain how best to carry them out.

With appropriate estate planning advice, based on the fact they each had children from previous marriages, Mr and Mrs Scarle may have decided to own their home and their bank account as tenants-in-common, rather than as joint tenants.  As joint tenants, all the property goes to the survivor, as in this case.  As tenants-in-common, the property is split into two distinct parts and each owner can decide where to leave their share.

There many intricacies involved in careful estate planning and it is all the more important in a blended family.

It is worth noting that fighting about an inheritance costs money.  Anna lost her case and inherited nothing. Despite attempts by Mrs Scarle’s daughter to settle the case by sharing out the inheritance, Anna refused to compromise.  Instead, she chose to go to Court where she lost, and was ordered to pay all of her own legal fees, as well as most of the legal fees incurred by Mrs Scarle’s daughter. 

If you don’t have a Will, make an appointment to speak to us.  It is important to have good advice about estate planning which is tailored to your specific circumstances.

If you do have a Will, book a free Will review with us.  We’ll check that it still fulfils your wishes in relation to the administration of your estate.