‘My lawyer was so bad I did the work my­self ’

Be­ing ex­ecu­tor of an es­tate can be com­plex, so many hire a so­lic­i­tor. But one reader’s law firm wasn’t up to the task.

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Money - By Harry Bren­nan

If you hire a pro­fes­sional, you don’t ex­pect to have to do their job for them. But Van­nessa Vi­nos had to dou­ble check al­most ev­ery piece of work done by her so­lic­i­tors when what should have been the sim­ple ad­min­is­tra­tion of her late fa­ther’s £2m es­tate turned into a com­edy of er­rors.

Mrs Vi­nos, 52, who runs a jew­ellery busi­ness in Wilt­shire, hired law firm Stephen­sons to deal with her fa­ther’s es­tate in early 2015. Still griev­ing from her re­cent loss just two months af­ter her fa­ther’s death, Mrs Vi­nos en­listed the help of Stephen­sons to en­sure that the process, which she ex­pected to be straight­for­ward, went smoothly. That was not to be.

“To say I have never dealt with such in­com­pe­tence with a le­gal firm would be an ab­so­lute un­der­state­ment,” she said.

The first hic­cup came a month af­ter she hired the firm, when she re­ceived an email from the so­lic­i­tor man­ag­ing her case. In­tended for a col­league but sent to Mrs Vi­nos by mis­take, the email con­tained deroga­tory com­ments about her and said she was be­ing both­er­some and in­ter­fer­ing. At an­other point she was told that her in­her­i­tance tax (IHT) bill would be £8,400 – when the cor­rect fig­ure was 10 times that. “It got to the point where I was cor­rect­ing ba­sic er­rors in maths,” she said.

Sim­i­lar com­pli­ca­tions through­out the process meant that the dis­tri­bu­tion of her fa­ther’s es­tate was de­layed by seven months. The so­lic­i­tors had failed to add up all the tax­able as­sets cor­rectly and all the rel­e­vant pa­per­work had to be sent to HMRC a sec­ond time.

Mrs Vi­nos said “the fi­nal nail in the cof­fin” came just days be­fore the fi­nal ac­counts were about to be set­tled in March 2016. It was only at this point that the firm said there would be £8,000 in cap­i­tal gains tax to pay on the sale of an in­her­ited home. This trans­ac­tion should have been tax free, as Mrs Vi­nos was us­ing the prop­erty as her main res­i­dence, but the law firm had failed to trans­fer the prop­erty into her name, she said.

Most alarm­ingly, just as Mrs Vi­nos was check­ing the fi­nal ac­counts, she no­ticed that more than two thirds of the es­tate was about to be mis­tak­enly sent to her es­tranged sis­ter.

“My fa­ther’s will was fairly sim­ple,” she said. “It di­vided his as­sets into three: two thirds to me and my hus­band and the other third to my sis­ter. If they had sent the ma­jor­ity of the funds to my sis­ter it would have meant a le­gal bat­tle to get them back. A nine-year-old wouldn’t have made that mis­take.”

Ex­as­per­ated by this point, Mrs Vi­nos com­plained to the Le­gal Om­buds­man, which ruled in her favour. In its sum­mary the om­buds­man said: “The er­rors made by the firm in the ad­min­is­tra­tion of the es­tate have caused a con­sid­er­able amount of distress and in­con­ve­nience.” It or­dered Stephen­sons to pay her £750 in com­pen­sa­tion.

Ann Har­ri­son, the law firm’s chair­woman, said: “The firm re­grets that er­rors were made in the ad­min­is­tra­tion of the es­tate in this case and we apol­o­gise again to Mrs Vi­nos for any distress and in­con­ve­nience this caused. Ac­tion was taken to rec­tify these er­rors in 2015 and the Le­gal Om­buds­man is sat­is­fied that those ac­tions lim­ited the on­go­ing distress to Mrs Vi­nos and the case is now con­cluded.

“We have also re­viewed our pro­cesses to en­sure that er­rors such as these are not re­peated and to en­sure that we pro­vide the high­est stan­dard of client care.”

Mrs Vi­nos said she would be more cau­tious in fu­ture when hir­ing pro­fes­sion­als and ad­vised any­one who had taken on the role of ex­ecu­tor to do their home­work on what is in­volved to avoid los­ing out.

There is no bar­rier to be­ing an ex­ecu­tor, and you can save on le­gal fees by do­ing the leg­work your­self. How­ever, es­tate ad­min­is­tra­tion can be com­plex – and the ex­ecu­tor is held re­spon­si­ble.

Kelly Greig of Ir­win Mitchell, the law firm, said DIY ad­min­is­tra­tors could save on costs but they might be un­aware of “po­ten­tially se­ri­ous pit­falls” that could lead to er­rors.

“Peo­ple may of­ten be un­able to as­sess prop­erly and thor­oughly all of the as­sets and debts of the de­ceased – an is­sue in it­self that makes it more likely that dis­tri­bu­tion of the es­tate will not be un­der­taken cor­rectly,” she said. “The con­se­quences of get­ting such is­sues wrong can be

se­ri­ous and ex­ecu­tors are per­son­ally and fi­nan­cially li­able for any mis­takes they make.”

She added that some peo­ple could be caught out by com­plex and lit­tle­un­der­stood tax rules. In one case she had seen, a large es­tate that was left en­tirely to char­ity in­curred hun­dreds of thou­sands of pounds in IHT un­nec­es­sar­ily, be­cause char­i­ta­ble do­na­tions are tax ex­empt.

Gavin Holt of Co-op Le­gal Ser­vices, an­other law firm, said peo­ple given the role of ex­ecu­tor should be pre­pared in ad­vance.

“Na­tional ed­u­ca­tion on the sub­ject is pretty poor and peo­ple don’t think about read­ing up on it,” he said. “If you are an ex­ecu­tor you need to start mak­ing ar­range­ments be­fore the tes­ta­tor [the will maker] dies, to un­der­stand what you need to do and know what as­sets they have, where they are kept, and how they want things to be. You should have that con­ver­sa­tion pre-death.”

Those look­ing for le­gal ad­vice can search for lo­cal pro­fes­sion­als via the web­site of the Law So­ci­ety, the le­gal trade body (law­so­ci­ety.org.uk).

If, like Mrs Vi­nos, you have re­ceived poor le­gal ad­vice and lost out as a re­sult, you can make a for­mal com­plaint to the Le­gal Om­buds­man, an in­de­pen­dent in­ter­me­di­ary.

You will have to com­plain in writ­ing to the le­gal firm in ques­tion first, al­low­ing up to eight weeks for it to re­spond. You can then ap­proach the om­buds­man with the de­tails of the com­plaint.

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