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Will-drafting firms

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  • Will-drafting firms

    Will-drafting firms use small print to slice thousands off inheritances

    Call for tighter controls on will writing after executors hit families with exhorbitant bills.

    Anyone who has written a will should carefully re-examine the terms after it emerged that many will drafting firms, including leading banks, hide huge fees in the small print that can slice tens of thousands of pounds off an inheritance.
    This is only one of the failings that has prompted calls for tighter controls on will writing, a service that remains largely unregulated. Citizens Advice says that increasing numbers of people are being conned out of hundreds of pounds by bogus companies that take the money and never deliver a promised will. Others have been persuaded to pay for wills that are not worth the paper they are written on.
    Barclays Wealth, an offshoot of the high street bank, tried to charge John and Judy Berryman, from Godstone, Surrey, tens of thousands of pounds to act as executors of the will of John’s aunt, Valerie Sage.
    The bank was appointed executor when it drew up Miss Sage’s will, giving it the right to handle the administration of her estate after death. The Berrymans are convinced that their aunt would never have agreed to this if she had been aware of the charges, which were hidden in the small print. After her death, in November, Barclays Wealth initially said it would take a fee of 4 per cent of the estate — a total of 25,200.
    Judy Berryman says: “I expect to pay a fair price for a job well done. I do, however, have a large problem with the blatant abuse of the trust placed in Barclays by an elderly lady. At the best the handling of our aunt’s affairs was distasteful and at worst downright unethical.”
    An estimated 90,000 people a year find themselves forced into accepting executors specified in their relatives’ wills, whether will-writing companies, solicitors or banks, and to pay the charges they impose. Experts say that many of these companies lure people in by offering to write the will for just a few hundred pounds, or even less — Barclays Wealth charges 90 to write a single will or it is free to customers with a fee-paying Additions current account. However, they skirt over the bumper fees that will be charged after death, which generate millions of pounds of revenue for the companies involved.
    Adam Walker, of Final Duties, an independent probate broker, says: “Some firms use forceful tactics to persuade customers to appoint them as executors without explaining the scale of the fees that will be charged. People think they are getting a good deal because firms offer discounted will-writing services for as little as 50, or even free, without realising that the charges for administering the estate after their death will cost thousands of pounds.”
    When Times Money investigated some of the leading will-writing services earlier this week all of them offered their services as executor online, but few spelt out the costs.
    The AA and Age Concern and Help the Aged, which use an online will-writing service offered by the solicitors Irwin Mitchell, are not explicit about the costs in their web pages. Skipton Trustees, part of Skipton Building Society, boasts a will-writing service from only 111, but requires customers to phone one of its advisers for details of how much it charges to act as executor.
    All of them claimed that it is not easy to put a cost on the administration of an estate after death as it depends on its size and complexity.
    This lack of clarity makes it difficult for consumers to compare fees and means that a figure quoted to someone writing the will may bear no relation to the actual cost charged after death.
    Barclays Wealth, which writes 20,000 wills a year, includes details of its fees in its terms and conditions, but the Berrymans say that they were forced to trawl through the small print before they discovered how much the bank planned to charge.
    Mrs Berryman says: “When we asked Barclays how much we would be charged, it skirted around the question and referred us to the brochure. It was only when we read the small print that we realised just how extortionate the fees were. The information, while not withheld, was not volunteered.”
    Many will-writing services imply that it is essential to appoint a professional as an executor.
    Acting as an executor can be time consuming, involving tracing and selling assets, paying tax and debts and distributing what is left.
    However, experts say that unless the estate is complex, the task can be performed by unpaid friends or family members. The process — mainly a matter of letter writing — is likely to take about 20 to 25 hours, over a couple of months.
    Peter McCarthy, senior lawyer for Which? Legal Service, says: “If your circumstances are relatively straightforward, then appointing a trusted friend relative or one of your children, if they are over the age of 18, as executor of your will is the best course of action.
    “Appointing a solicitor or bank as executor can work out to be expensive, as some banks charge anything up to 4 or even 5 per cent of the value of the estate, regardless of how complex it actually is to deal with.”
    Once you appoint a professional in your will you enter into a binding legal contract. If you wish to remove an unwanted executor from the will you can do this using a codicil. This allows you to make the alteration without changing the rest of the will. However, it works only if the person drawing up the will is still alive. If the beneficiaries want to change a named bank, solicitor or will writing company after death they can ask it to renounce executorship, giving a reason, such as unreasonable costs. Barclays Wealth agreed to renounce its executorship of Miss Sage’s will after the Berrymans approached Final Duties, an independent probate broker, which found a quote for the same work for 4,485.
    The bank says: “We are sorry that Mr Berryman feels that he and his family have had a poor experience and we have worked closely with him in order to address his concerns.”
    If an institution refuses to budge, and you think that its fees are unreasonable, they can be removed only by making an application to the High Court.
    If you need help to administer an estate you can always appoint a solicitor after death but should seek quotes from a number of sources. Experts say that fees at a good provincial solicitors should come to about 2 per cent of a routine estate and the work should take two months. However, if you appoint a professional, keep a close eye on their actions to check they are working in your best interests.
    Unwelcome fees are not the only problem that can arise after writing a will. Citizens Advice has warned people to be wary of bogus will-writing services that advertise “cut price” deals in local papers, cold call on the phone or on the doorstep. Once people part with their money, some never receive the promised will or discover that it is worthless.
    A spokesman for Citizens Advice says: “Often the bogus will writers exploit the elderly and people on low incomes who can’t afford to use a solicitor and have little experience of legal documents.”
    The numerous problems have prompted a debate over whether will-writing companies should be better regulated. A recent report on the regulation of legal services, by Lord Hunt of Wirral, expressed concerns about the “fringe legal market” in will writing and probate.
    The Legal Services Board, another regulator, also plans to consult on whether will writing should be regulated this year.
    If the will-writing service is offered directly by a bank, the Financial Ombudsman Service will consider complaints. The Law Society oversees solicitors and investigates complaints against them. However, anyone can set themselves up as an unregulated will writer, leaving consumers without a body to turn to should they have a problem.
    Take care of your will
    - Compare the costs of a number of will-writing services before choosing.
    - Don’t assume that if you use a solicitor or will writer that you will get an expert, so always ask about their qualifications.
    - Check whether the will-writing business you plan to use is regulated.
    - Always approach relatives or friends who you are thinking of appointing as an executor to see if they are willing to take on the responsibility.
    - If you are named in someone else’s will as an executor you may have to apply for probate to wind up the estate. Probate is issued by the Probate Service at http://www.hmcourts-service.gov.


    Last edited by Amethyst; 16th August 2015, 07:21:AM.

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