'Who died first?' resolved in tragic dispute

Posted: 16th August 2019

Elderly (2)Inheritance disputes take many forms, but few can have been as tragic as that concerning a couple who were found dead from hypothermia in circumstances causing a disagreement between their children as to which of them died first.

The bodies of the couple, who each had children from previous relationships, were found by concerned neighbours. They jointly owned assets, including their home, which were worth about £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 a five-day window. The wife’s body, when found, 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 10 years younger, 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.