What lawyers described as an “extraordinary” battle over two stepsisters’ £300,000 inheritance when their parents died could easily have been avoided.

Laura Banks, a Senior Associate Solicitor in the Wills & Estates team at Thursfields’ Birmingham office, was commenting after a high court case which began when John and Marjorie Ann Scarle were found dead from hypothermia at their bungalow in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, in 2016.

Mr Scarle’s daughter Anna Winter’s case was that forensic evidence suggested Mrs Scarle, 69, died first, resulting in her father inheriting all the couple’s assets before his death – which would then pass to her.

But Mrs Scarle’s daughter Deborah Cutler’s case 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.

Judge Philip Kramer said that despite forensic evidence, he could not be certain which of the pair died first and so ruled that Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 applied, meaning Ms Cutler now stands to receive the entire £300,000 estate.

Laura Banks of Thursfields said: “What must have been such a stressful case could have so easily been avoided if there had been properly drafted Wills.

These could have covered both sides of the family benefitting on second death in any event, and this preparation is especially important in the case of blended families.

We always advise clients to think about this to avoid what can be a ‘lottery’ of the beneficiaries of whoever dies second benefitting at the expense of the first’s beneficiaries.”

Laura explained that clients should also receive detailed advice on what’s known as the ‘commorientes’ rule, which applies where two or more persons have died at about the same time but in circumstances where it’s impossible to determine the order of death.

She added: “The main point is that clients should get proper advice on their Wills to ensure all the multiple options are explored, and to understand how the ‘commorientes’ rule can impact on their wishes so they deal fully with the second death provisions for both sides of the family.”

Anyone with queries on wills and estates can call Laura on 0121 796 4027 or email her at lbanks@thursfields.co.uk.

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