Once again, will-writers are at the forefront of criticism by the Legal Ombudsman, following a recent report. An undercover investigation by the Legal Services Consumer Panel has exposed alarming concerns regarding the quality of wills, leading them to conclude that the will-writing industry must be regulated.
The Consumer Panel’s ‘mystery-shopping’ exercise found evidence of “poor quality wills, sharp sales practices… exorbitant pricing” and “lost wills” where the companies that drafted the documents “disappear without a trace.”
These findings are mirrored by the experience of solicitors, and the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners have similarly called for will-writers in England and Wales to be regulated.
Members of the public may not be aware that many unregulated will-writers have no legal qualifications at all and no specialist knowledge of inheritance tax or capacity issues. Unlike solicitors, they are also not backed by indemnity insurance, so if the will-writer is negligent, there may be no viable remedy available for the family.
There is also plenty of evidence of misrepresentation regarding fees and probate services. Many wills are sold for under £100 plus VAT each. However, storage charges of £30-£50 plus VAT per year (most solicitors don’t charge for storage) quickly mount up so that, after five years, the original costs exceed what a solicitor would charge.
Probate services are also often sold with wills for an astonishingly high price – typically a substantial lump sum when the will is drafted , followed by a percentage of the estate when the client dies. Far from saving clients money, unregulated will-writers often charge as much as double what a solicitor would charge for their probate services – despite having no expert knowledge and very little experience.
This lack of regulation has consequences: if a will is prepared for a vulnerable person, there are often inadequate notes made at the same time. If a family member raises concerns later, there are often no records kept of why the will was made a certain way or whether the testator had the necessary capacity to make the will.
There have also been numerous examples of wills being lost or inadequately stored – in one memorable case in a warehouse which was neither water-tight nor fireproof, causing original documents to become illegible.
In other cases, the will was negligently prepared and resulted in either assets passing to the wrong family member or incurring inheritance tax unnecessarily. There was no recourse to the will-writer who, by then, had gone out of business and disappeared. The estate was left to bear the cost.
You may think: ‘of course a law firm would say that the right choice is to appoint a solicitor to draft your will’. We would say that we are highly trained and fully insured, as well as being governed by the Law Society and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. We are obliged to make all costs clear from the outset and, in most cases, we can provide a fixed-fee service which means that there will be no hidden costs.
Solicitors are not afraid of competition; there has always been competition in the legal market. However, we do believe that our competition should also be under an obligation to be as honest, professional and transparent regarding charges as we are – and we expect them to take responsibility for any mistakes with adequate indemnity insurance cover.
We entirely support the Legal Ombudsman’s recommendations and hope that this will lead to better consumer services – whoever provides them.