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Warring stepsisters show importance of Wills, says lawyer

Tristan Lewis

A Shropshire solicitor is highlighting the importance of making a will following a High Court case involving two warring stepsisters, a £300,000 property and a near 100-year-old law.

The case followed the deaths of John and Ann Scarle three years ago and inconclusive evidence of which partner died first – having a direct bearing on which of the daughters should inherit.

Tristan Lewis, Associate Solicitor on the Wills, Trusts and Administration of Estates Team at Lanyon Bowdler, said the case was a timely reminder of the need to put financial affairs in order before it was too late.

“There is only one way to ensure your wishes are carried out and everything is legal and that is to make a will,” he said.

“It is clear and decisive, avoiding the emotional upset and expense that a legal action can bring.

“This case centres on the Commorientes Rule, found in Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925, which states that when two persons have died in circumstances where it is uncertain which survived the other, the younger is presumed to have survived the elder.

“In this particular case, stepsisters Deborah Cutler and Anna Winter became embroiled in a battle after their parents, John and Ann Scarle, were found dead in October 2016. The cause of the deaths was determined as Hypothermia.

“Deborah Cutler was the daughter of Ann, and Anna Winter was the daughter of John.

“The main asset in the estates of the elderly couple was the home that they jointly owned in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, which was worth approximately £300,000.

“The couple were found dead at their home but there was no evidence to determine conclusively who died first. If it was John, Deborah would inherit the house and if it was Ann, Anna would inherit.

“Anna Winter’s barrister argued that the decomposition of her stepmother’s body suggested that ‘on the balance of probabilities’ she had been dead longer than her father.

“Deborah Cutler’s barrister argued there was no direct evidence shedding light on when either had died and as such in order to rebut the ‘rule’ her stepsister would have to prove ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that Mrs Scarle died first.

“The High Court agreed with Deborah Cutler and awarded costs of £179,000 against her stepsister.

“The court heard Deborah Cutler had made a number of attempts to settle the case by dividing assets equally – at one point offering a 60-40 split in her stepsister’s favour, as well as mediation. All were rejected.

“This case highlights the need for property owners to take proper advice to understand the basis upon which their property is held and to make a will to deal with the way in which their assets are distributed.”

For more advice, visit: www.lblaw.co.uk or call Tristan on 0800 652 3371.

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