Have you got a shoddy will? Mystery shoppers find some shocking will writers
We all know that 88.2% of all statistics are made up, but that doesn’t stop between 1 in 3 and 3 in 4 people in the UK not having a valid will when they die. However, it may not be all their fault. The Legal Services Consumer Panel have been mystery shopping wills, and it doesn’t make pretty reading. Tales of sharp sales practice, poor quality wills and lost wills where companies disappear without trace have led the Legal Services Board to launch a statutory investigation, and to call for will writing services to become a regulated activity.
At the moment, any Tom Dick or Harry can decide they are going to write wills. While there are qualifications and will-writing bodies out there, there is no requirement for a self-styled Will writer to take any exams or join any organisation. Solicitors study wills and estates as part of their training, and the standalone STEP qualification also requires completion of tough exams* in order to become a designated Trusts and Estates practitioner. Other organisations may simply require payment of fees, or attendance at a one or two day course to get ‘accreditation’.
Under the new proposals, all providers would have to demonstrate they are competent to write wills, follow a code of conduct and allow complaints to the Legal Ombudsman. But sadly it’s not just bucket shops who are at fault. One in five wills prepared by both unregulated will-writing companies and solicitors were failed by expert assessors in a mystery shopping exercise conducted by the panel. David Edmonds, Chairman of the Legal Services Board said: “It is clear from the results of the mystery shopping exercise - and the Consumer Panel’s analysis - that the challenges are common to all providers and that a monopoly for solicitors is not the answer. We are asking the existing regulators and trade bodies to explore the steps that can be immediately taken to raise standards across the market place.”
Dr Dianne Hayter, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel who prepared the report, is also calling for training standards for solicitors to be raised and for the Office of Fair Trading to lead an enforcement campaign targeting pressure sellers and exorbitant prices. She said: "A will may have huge personal and financial consequences for those who we care about most. It's vital that advisers do a competent job, especially since any defects are unlikely to be discovered until it's too late to fix them. The panel was shocked by the poor quality of wills in the mystery shopping. Although the sample was small, will-writing companies and solicitors were equally culpable.”
Our own Len Dastard, legal (Mexican) wrangler extraordinaire warned about the perils of getting your will written properly back in January “Beware as mistakes can happen and this can cause many problems when the will is required.”
You don’t say. Take a look at some of these examples of shocking will-writing ‘professionals’ at work from the Guardian:
Married clients whose will purported to leave life insurance policies in trust. It was discovered only after the husband's death that the trust in the will was invalid as it failed to provide for any beneficiaries. This failure may end up costing the widow many thousands of pounds in inheritance tax, but the will-writing company denied responsibility, saying the will was prepared by their franchisee for which they had no current address.
Hampshire Citizens Advice clients were pressured into buying will-writing services in their home following an approach at a shopping centre. Initially they were told wills would cost £35 each, but the eventual cost was £3,000 which the salesperson advised them to pay then so that it would not be deducted from the estate. The agreement included the firm having a right to 1% of the estate, storage and an annual check of the wills, monthly payments and counselling for family members.
A firm offered to store client wills at the national wills depository at Somerset House. In reality they were stored in a barn in Wincanton, in Somerset. When the business closed, the wills were rescued by another will-writing firm, but further anguish was caused when they demanded payment from clients for their wills to be returned to them or payment from them for ongoing storage of the wills to be arranged.
So what can you do to protect yourself? Well, always ask what qualifications you solicitor or will writer has, and whether they had to take exams. Go by personal recommendation or referral, or ask your local Citizen’s Advice Bureau who they would suggest. Remember, as with anything in life, you are likely to get what you pay for, and Len suggests that between £80 and £250 is a reasonable charge for a simple will or pair of wills. You could also get your will prepared cheaper, or even free, if you agree to leave some of your dough to charity, through Will Aid.
If your affairs are complicated, and you need tax planning advice, go to a specialist, and expect to pay more now, or you could pay handsomely later. Even if the Legal Service Board’s recommendations are adopted by the various bodies, it will take at least two years before implementation can start. So just make sure you don’t die quite yet...