The children of an elderly couple found dead at home together are locked in an unusual £300,000 inheritance battle as they ask a judge to decide which parent died first.
John and Ann Scarle, who each had children from previous marriages, died from hypothermia at their home in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, in October 2016. Their bodies were discovered when worried neighbours called the police.
While the precise cause of the tragedy remains a mystery, the two sides of their family are now at war over who inherits the couple’s home.
The family of whoever survived longer is set to inherit the house, leaving the other side with nothing.
The battle is being fought on a little-used 94-year-old law, with the most famous case of its type dating back to the Battle of Britain when a family was wiped out by the same bomb.
Mr Scarle’s daughter Anna Winter insists that her father probably survived longer as he was fitter, but Deborah Cutler, the daughter of Mrs Scarle, claims the order of deaths cannot be determined.
Mrs Cutler says the “legal presumption” would then be that her step-father, who was older, died first meaning that she and her brother, Andre Farley, should get the house.
Mrs Cutler’s barrister James Weale said the deaths happened between October 3 or 4 and October 11, 2016, telling the High Court: “The most that one can do is speculate as to what might have happened. None of the experts were able to express any view as to even the approximate date, let alone time of the death of either of John or Ann.”
The court heard the couple bought the house in 1988 after five years together, using the proceeds of sale of Mrs Scarle’s previous home.
Mr Scarle, who died aged 79, was his wife’s full-time carer during the last decades of their life after she suffered a stroke in around 1998.
Mrs Scarle, who was 69 when she died, required a mobility aid to walk around inside and a wheelchair when outdoors, whereas her husband had no problems getting around.
The husband was last seen alive when he spoke to a neighbour and said he was “getting the car ready for Ann”. They were found dead around a week later on the evening of October 11.
When police arrived, they found the home in disarray, having falling victim to either burglars or vandals.
Mr Weale said it is likely that at least one of them was alive on October 7, the date of their 26th wedding anniversary, because a card sent by Mrs Cutler was found opened. But he said there is “no direct evidence” of who succumbed to hypothermia first.
Amrik Wahiwala, representing Mrs Winter, said police evidence about the state of Mrs Scarle’s body when she was found suggests that she died first, but Mr Weale countered that it would have to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt” to win the inheritance fight.
Judge Philip Kramer will determine the legal dispute, fought under the Law of Property Act 1925, with a ruling on a later date.