Inheritance Dispute: What happens when a married couple die together?

Insights / / Bristol

When a married couple are found dead together, who is entitled to inherit their estates?  Laura Ramos, Trainee Solicitor in Private Client, explains how the law operates in these cases.

You would have recently read in the news that two stepsisters found themselves in this position when their parents died together and the Court could not determine who had died first.

Mr and Mrs Scarle, 79 and 69 years old respectively, were found dead together from hypothermia at their bungalow in Essex three years ago. Mr Scarle’s only child from a previous relationship, Ms Winter, and Mrs Scarle’s daughter, Ms Cutler, had to demonstrate who had died first in order to establish who was entitled to inherit their jointly owned estate.

In cases such as this one, there is a presumption under section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 that the younger survived the elder and therefore the elder’s estate passes free of inheritance tax to the younger and the estate of the younger (to include the elder spouse’s assets) passes to the beneficiaries under their Will or under the intestacy rules if the deceased died without a Will.

In the above case, Ms Cutler had to demonstrate that the presumption applied and that Mrs Scarle, being the younger, had survived her elder husband, Mr Scarle, so she could inherit her mother’s and Mr Scarle’s estate. The parties obtained pathology reports but the Court was not able to determine who had died first. Finally, the judge concluded that the presumption applied and Mrs Scarle had survived her husband, therefore both estates passed under her Will and her daughter, Ms Cutler, was entitled to her estate.

How we can assist

This case demonstrates the importance of making mirror Wills containing the same provisions, particularly if there are children from previous relationships, or to consider making Wills incorporating Life Interest Trust so that you can make provision for your spouse and control the destination of your capital on your spouse’s death, for the benefit of your children.

The Wills that we prepare in our Private Client team are drafted to incorporate the presumption under section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 and to take advantage of the inheritance tax position so that the estate of the elder spouse can pass free of inheritance tax in circumstances where a married couple have died together and it could not be established who had died first.

Our Private Client department offers Wills, Probate, Tax & Trusts services. We offer a 30 minute free consultation and we will be pleased to discuss your personal and financial circumstances with you so that we can provide you with a bespoke advice that best suits your needs.

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