If ever there was a tale that should remind you of the advantages of drawing up a will it is the sad story of John and Ann Scarle of Leigh-on-Sea. The pair died of hypothermia at their home in 2016, but which of them succumbed first is the subject of a High Court case. It matters because they had no children between them – but did each have a child from a previous marriage. If John had died first then the couple’s £280,000 home would have passed to Ann and thence, on her death, it would have passed to Ann’s daughter Deborah Cutler. If Ann had died first, John would have inherited the property, and then on his death it would have been his daughter Anna Winter who inherited it. Trouble is, the couple were both found dead together and there is no way of knowing who died first.Hence the matter has ended with the High Court.
It recalls the case of Sir Josiah Charles Stamp, the 1st Baron Stamp, industrialist and director of the Bank of England, who was killed with his wife and son Wilfred during a German bombing raid on their home at Shortlands, South London, on 16 April 1941. With no evidence as to which, father or son, had died first, a court ruled that Wilfred should be deemed to have survived Sir Josiah, if only for a split second. For the family, the decision had the unfortunate effect that they had to pay death duty twice.
There are several morals to the Scarle story. First, is the need properly to heat the homes of the elderly and infirm. Second is the need for neighbours and family members to keep an eye on people. And thirdly, of course, is the need to have a will – especially in the case of people who have married after having children in earlier relationships. To an outsider it might seem obvious what the solution is – the two women should share the proceeds of the sale of the couple’s home. But unfortunately the law does not always favour the obvious option.
How much easier it would have been if the Scarles had each made a will specifying that their respective daughters would ultimately inherit the property between themselves when the last of the parents died. Not that that is a guaranteed route to familial harmony. There have been cases where children, having been left a share of a parent’s will, have then sought to have the surviving parent, or step-parent, evicted. Maybe the greatest moral to come out of the story is never base your life-plans on the presumption that you will inherit anything from anyone. If you can establish your own financial freedom, based on your own earnings and savings, so much the better.