Two Stepsisters; One Inheritance Dispute

Do you remember the recent case in the news of two stepsisters fighting over their inheritance?  Tragically, when Mr and Mrs Scarle died, their bodies were not discovered for several days.  When they were found, it was not clear who had died first.

This became an issue when their estates were being dealt with, and here’s why.

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.  All his assets would pass under the Intestacy Rules, meaning that Mrs Scarle inherited everything of his, even if she only outlived him for a few minutes.  Everything both of them owned would form her estate, so Mr Scarle’s daughter from a previous marriage would inherit nothing at all.

Mrs Scarle did have a Will.  All her assets were left to her two children in her Will.  This included the house and the joint bank account.  These were jointly owned with Mr Scarle, and were worth about £315,000 in total.  If she outlived Mr Scarle, everything would be left to her two children.  If she died before Mr Scarle, the jointly owned assets would pass to him, and then go to his daughter, Anna.

Now you perhaps see why Anna went to Court to argue that her father had outlived his wife.  However, she was unable to prove it.

Since it was not possible to say with certainty who had died first, the Judge decided that the presumption should apply.

He ruled that Mr Scarle died first, because he was older, so Mrs Scarle’s estate should 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 a well written Will and 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.