Don’t let your will be­come a blank cheque

Every­one should have a will, but Harry Bren­nan finds that some providers want to take their own cut from clients’ es­tates

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Money -

Con­sumers are at risk of be­ing caught out by firms that of­fer will­writ­ing ser­vices, of­ten for free, but name them­selves as ex­ecu­tors and take a cut of their es­tate. An alarm­ing 6 in 10 peo­ple do not have a valid will in place, ac­cord­ing to con­sumer cham­pion Which?, with 20pc of peo­ple say­ing writ­ing a will had never oc­curred to them.

Char­i­ties have aimed to change this with cam­paigns like “free wills month”, an ini­tia­tive that en­cour­ages in­sti­tu­tions to pro­vide will-writ­ing ser­vices free of charge.

How­ever, ex­perts have warned con­sumers can un­wit­tingly be at risk of giv­ing away a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of their wealth by ap­point­ing a lawyer, bank or build­ing so­ci­ety as the ad­min­is­tra­tor.

They have also warned that new trans­parency rules, which will be brought in this De­cem­ber by the Solic­i­tors Reg­u­la­tion Au­thor­ity and re­quire firms to make pro­bate and es­tate ad­min­is­tra­tion fees clearer, only ap­ply when the ad­min­is­tra­tion of the es­tate be­gins, not when cus­tomers sign up.

This means many could be un­know­ingly giv­ing away vast sums of cash, while friends or fam­ily could have been ap­pointed to do the same job free of charge.

Peter Robin­son, 72, a re­tired busi­ness con­sul­tant from Sh­effield, in­structed lo­cal so­lic­i­tor Buchanan & Co to write up his will and to name a close fam­ily friend as the ex­ecu­tor of his es­tate, which Mr Robin­son es­ti­mates will be worth around £500,000 when he dies.

When it came to check­ing over the terms and con­di­tions, how­ever, Mr Robin­son was sur­prised to see the so­lic­i­tor had in­cluded it­self as co­ex­ecu­tor.

Mr Robin­son then ques­tioned the firm on what the fees for its ser­vices would be, as there was no in­di­ca­tion made in the draft will. In re­sponse the firm said that it could not put an ex­act fig­ure on its ser­vices, but that it could charge five to 10pc of the over­all es­tate, or £25,000 to £50,000 re­spec­tively.

When he ques­tioned the firm fur­ther, it said the fee could be as low as 2.5pc of the es­tate, plus VAT and other ex­penses – still more than £12,500.

“Es­sen­tially, it wrote it­self a blank cheque,” he said. “I’d rather put the lot on the 5.30 at Kemp­ton than hand over my money to them.”

Mr Robin­son said he asked the firm to re­draft the will and that he was shocked to learn this would cost him £45. He gave up with the lo­cal firm and found ser­vices else­where.

Gavin Holt, of law firm Co-op Le­gal Ser­vices, said pro­fes­sional ex­ecu­tor ap­point­ments are not a uni­ver­sally bad thing, but that in cer­tain cir­cum­stances con­sumers could be open to abuse in the event an un­scrupu­lous firm named it­self in the will without the client’s knowl­edge.

Lor­raine Robin­son, of Farewill, a will writer, said the prac­tice used to be more com­mon, and high street banks were once among the worst cul­prits, some­times of­fer­ing wills for free but mak­ing it con­di­tional that the bank was named as the ex­ecu­tor, and tak­ing a per­cent­age cut of the es­tate.

“I spent 10 years work­ing at a law firm that worked with banks of­fer­ing wills and ex­ecu­tor ser­vices, she said. “Un­for­tu­nately, trans­parency wasn’t great then and many peo­ple were un­aware of what it was they were sign­ing up for, mean­ing there will be peo­ple out there now who still have a pro­fes­sional named as their ad­min­is­tra­tor.”

If the es­tate is sim­ple, a pro­fes­sional ex­ecu­tor may not be nec­es­sary. Ms Robin­son ad­vised peo­ple to keep their wills up-to-date and to ques­tion whether or not it was ap­pro­pri­ate to have a pro­fes­sional sort­ing it out. If it is not, she said, you can sim­ply re­write the will.

“This is some­thing that un­for­tu­nately still goes on and there are providers who are not fol­low­ing good in­dus­try prac­tice. It should never be a con­di­tion of hav­ing a will drawn up that the writer is also the ex­ecu­tor,” she added.

Mr Holt said there were cases when a pro­fes­sional ex­ecu­tor could be valu­able. For ex­am­ple, if some­one lived alone and had lit­tle or no fam­ily or friends, and no one was will­ing to be an ex­ecu­tor. Or if an es­tate is likely to be fairly com­plex, or where there is a chance the will may be con­tested and a client wants ev­ery­thing to be legally wa­ter­tight.

Some­times, he added, es­tranged fam­i­lies can make the pro­bate process in­cred­i­bly un­pleas­ant and hav­ing a pro­fes­sional tak­ing care of things can help.

Buchanan & Co said it could not com­ment on in­di­vid­ual cus­tomer mat­ters due to “client con­fi­den­tial­ity”. “As a client’s cir­cum­stances some­times change be­tween mak­ing the will and their even­tual death, we are un­able to pro­vide quo­ta­tions for our pro­bate charges at the time the will is made,” it added.

‘I’d rather put all my money on the 5.30 at Kemp­ton than hand it over to that firm’

Peter Robin­son hired a firm to draw up his will; it named it­self as co­ex­ecu­tor

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