Avoid bitter family feuds with legal advice

12th September 2019

Avoid bitter family feuds with legal advice

The bitter court battle between step-sisters arguing over which of their parents died first and which of them should inherit the estate could have been avoided if the parents had drawn up proper wills.

Kate Newton, a specialist in wills and inheritance planning, says the recent case of Scarle v Scarle highlights why effective legal advice is crucial when planning for the future.

The case emphasises the need for a professionally drafted will and the need to take legal advice on the ownership of joint assets.

John Scarle, aged 79, and his wife Marjorie Scarle, 69, were both found dead of hypothermia at their Essex home three years ago.

It was a second marriage for them both and they each had a daughter from a previous relationship. Their jointly owned estate consisting of their bungalow and bank account amounted to £300,000.

Kate takes up the case: “The property was held as joint tenants and so the shares of the first to die pass automatically to the survivor.

“Because neither John nor Marjorie had wills, under intestacy rules the survivor’s estate then passes to his or her daughter.

“The difficulty with this case is that the order of the couple’s deaths could not be established and the two step-sisters entered a legal battle for their parents’ estates.”

In the absence of certainty, Justice Kramer in the High Court applied the rule in section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925, which states that where there is no proof as to the order of death, the youngest is presumed to survive the eldest.

Mrs Scarle was deemed to be the survivor and so the entire joint estate passed solely to her daughter. Mr Scarle’s daughter inherited nothing and stands to face legal fees of £150,000.

Kate concludes: “The situation could have been easily avoided by the parents taking legal advice on the nature of their joint ownership and by ensuring that they had well drafted wills in place which incorporated succession planning.

“If they had converted their joint tenancy into a tenancy in common, the first to die’s share in the property would no longer pass to the survivor automatically.

“Under professionally drafted wills, they could have ensured that, ultimately, their respective shares in the property would pass to their respective daughters.”

For advice on wills and estate planning contact the team at Higgs & Sons on 0345 111 5050.


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