‘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.
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.