Who Died First? Judge Decides In Tragic Inheritance Dispute

Inheritance disputes take many shapes and forms, but few can have been as tragic or unusual as that concerning an elderly couple who each had children from previous relationships and who were found dead in their home from hypothermia in circumstances which gave rise to a bitter disagreement between their children as to which of them died first.

The bodies of the couple were discovered by neighbours who were worried after not seeing them for some time. They jointly owned assets, including their home, which was valued at around £300,000 when they died. If the wife died first, the husband would have inherited those assets at the instant of her death, and vice versa. On the survivor’s death, the assets would have automatically passed to his or her children, with those of the parent who died first receiving nothing.

In those circumstances, the husband’s daughter launched proceedings on behalf of his estate, seeking a ruling that he was the last to die. The wife’s daughter resisted the claim on behalf of her estate, insisting that the evidence pointed to her having survived for some time after her husband succumbed to the cold in the house.

In ruling on the matter, a judge noted that it was not disputed that the couple had both died at some point within the same 5 day period. The wife’s body was in a more advanced state of decomposition than that of the husband. However, that could be explained by differences in temperature in the two rooms where the couple’s remains were found. Other evidence in the case was also equivocal and no firm conclusion could be reached as to which of them died first.

Given that the husband was aged 79 when he died, and the wife was younger at 69, the judge noted that Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 gave rise to a legal presumption that the older spouse died first. The husband’s daughter having failed to rebut that presumption on the balance of probabilities, the Court found that his wife had survived him. The ruling meant that the wife’s heirs would inherit the couple’s jointly held assets.

This case highlights just how important it is to have a properly drafted Will so that every possibility is covered and that your wishes are fulfilled properly. Is your Will valid and up-to date? Contact us online today for expert help and advice about making a Will.