The number of inheritance disputes reaching the England and Wales High Court has dramatically increased over the last 15 years. In 2005, there were just 15 cases brought to the High Court under the Inheritance (Provisions for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, compared to 158 cases in 2016. These statistics only cover a small proportion of the overall number of inheritance disputes as many arguments will be settled before reaching the High Court.
Battles over inheritance can arise for several reasons but this recent case that reached the England and Wales High Court is the most unusual dispute we’ve seen in quite some time. Mr and Mrs Scarle were found dead at their home back in October 2016. The elderly couple died of hypothermia and their stepdaughters have now been disputing who died first, to determine who would inherit their £300,000 house.
Mr Scarle’s daughter, Anna Winter, believes that her step-mum would have died first and therefore, her share of the property would have momentarily passed to Mr Scarle, before passing to Anna herself. However, Mrs Scarle’s daughter, Deborah Cutler, argues that her step-dad died first so his share of the house would have briefly been inherited by Mrs Scarle, and then passed to her children Deborah and Andre.
Under section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925, it should be presumed that the eldest person died first. This argument was used by Deborah’s Barrister as her mother was younger than Mr Scarle. However, Anna’s Barrister reasoned that due to the conditions of the bodies when they were found, it is more probable that Mrs Scarle died first. Mr Scarle was also a full-time carer for his wife who was ten years younger.
Disputes over inheritance regarding who died first are very rare today as it’s usually possible to determine the time and date of death. However, in this case, the couple died of hypothermia and were not found until a week after their death. There were some notable cases of this kind back in the 1950s and 60s when a family were all killed by the same bomb during the Battle of Britain, and a couple drowned at sea.
It was up to the High Court to decide who died first and consequently, which side of the family would inherit Mr and Mrs Scarle’s property. The judge has ruled that there is not enough medical evidence to determine who died first. Therefore, the Law of Property Act 1925 presumes that the eldest, Mr Scarle, died first. As a result, Deborah Cutler, the daughter of Mrs Scarle has won the £300,000 inheritance battle.
Earlier this year, we reported how inheritance disputes were set to increase due to new research revealing that 12.6 million British adults would be prepared to dispute a Will and go to court if they disagreed with the division of a relative’s estate. Therefore, we predict the number of severe cases reaching the High Court to rise even further.
As one of the UK’s leading estate administration providers, we’ve seen more disputes over inheritance arise and changing family dynamics are undeniably contributing to the increase. In 2018, we commissioned an independent researcher to explore how changing family structures impact the Will writing industry. The research revealed that one in twenty people (5%) have been in a dispute with someone about the contents of a Will. The changes in family structures could likely be a reason for the increase in inheritance disputes as more people remarry and become part of a blended family.
Some steps can be taken to reduce the likelihood of disputes over inheritance. A well-drafted and valid Will is the first step to ensure the individual’s wishes have been shared. The Will writer should ensure that family dynamics have been taken into account and inform the individual of any areas of concern. However, it’s not always enough to just create a Will and extra precautions should be considered. Discussing the contents of the Will and explaining how the estate will be distributed to loved ones can take away the element of surprise and help relatives to understand the wishes in the Will. Taking these steps to ensure the right Will is in place and the family are aware of how the estate will be distributed, should reduce the risk of inheritance disputes.
Kings Court Trust are one of the UK’s leading estate administration providers and take care of the complicated practicalities after death, so you can focus on life’s important moments. If you have any questions about estate administration, call our experienced Client Services Team on 0300 303 9000 or click here to get in touch.