Century-old law used to solve stepsisters' £300k inheritance battle

Aubrey Allegretti, news reporter

A judge has settled a legal fight between two stepsisters over a £300,000 inheritance by applying a century-old law.

John and Marjorie Ann Scarle were found dead from hypothermia at their bungalow in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, three years ago - triggering a dispute over their joint assets.

In a case described by lawyers as "extraordinary", Mr Scarle's daughter Anna Winter and Mrs Scarle's daughter Deborah Cutler went to the High Court over their inheritance.

Ms Winter's case was that forensic evidence suggested Mrs Scarle, 69, died first, resulting in her father inheriting all of the couple's assets before his death - which would then pass to her.

But Ms Cutler relied on a 100-year-old law which creates a "presumption" that, as the elder of the two, Mr Scarle, 79, died first - meaning she would inherit the assets through her mother.

Ruling in favour of Ms Cutler, who now stands to receive all of the £300,000 estate, Judge Philip Kramer said he could not be certain which of the pair died first.

He said forensic evidence suggested Mrs Scarle died first, because her body was more decomposed than that of her husband.

But he said he could not rule out that the different rates of decomposition could be explained by the difference in "micro-climate" between the toilet, where Mrs Scarle's body was found, and the lounge, where her husband was discovered.

Judge Kramer ruled the presumption in favour of the older person dying first, enshrined in the Law of Property Act 1925, would therefore apply.

The court heard Ms Cutler had offered to settle the case by dividing the assets equally, and then later 60/40 in her stepsister's favour, but Ms Winter only indicated she would settle out of court for 100% of the assets.

Ms Cutler's lawyer said she was "met with stubborn intransigence" by Ms Winter, who "refused to make any reasonable attempt to engage in settlement negotiations".

Ms Winter was ordered to pay the majority of Ms Cutler's legal costs of £84,000, on top of her own own totalling £95,000.

Speaking after the ruling, her solicitor said the judgment gave "welcome clarification to this area of law, which has been uncertain for many years".

Judge Kramer ruled there was "no suggestion" either woman were "otherwise than attentive towards their respective parent".