“Catalogue of mistakes” – STEP makes case for will-writing regulation

Wills: Bad practice from unqualified or unregulated writers

Nearly half of consumers who have a will either wrote their own or obtained it through a cheap online service, with hardly any checking the credentials of the provider, new research has shown.

STEP said this was despite its members generally charging less than £500 for a standard/uncomplicated will.

The professional body for private client advisers included the information in its response to the Competition & Markets Authority’s investigation into unregulated will-writing, online divorce and pre-paid probate services.

A survey STEP commissioned from Censuswide of 2,000 consumers found that 49% did not have a will, increasing to 65% among people aged 45-54.

Of those who had one, 55% went to a qualified solicitor/will writer, while 22% bought a low-cost will online – only 3% of people checked the online will writer was qualified – increasing to 32% of people aged 18-24.

A further 22% wrote their own will – increasing to 34% of those aged 18-24.

A separate survey of 329 STEP members found that 70% charged less than £500 for a simple will, with just under half (46%) charging under £300.

The majority had encountered bad practice from unqualified or unregulated will-writers. Nearly two-thirds had come across cases where a will-writing company quoted a fee for writing the will but then charged significant additional costs not covered within the terms of business.

“Just over half of those surveyed (54%) have come across firms making false claims about the wills they are selling to clients,” STEP said.

“Of those, 71 people mentioned that advisors had wrongly told their clients that they could avoid care home fees by putting their home and other assets into a trust during their lifetime. Some clients have been advised to gift their house during their lifetime.

“Both of these are considered to be deliberate deprivation of assets and are ineffective for care assessment, which can lead to serious problems.”

Some 55% had seen incompetence or dishonesty in the drafting and administration of trusts, and a third saw such incompetence leading to significant tax bills.

Many of the examples featured failures to make use of nil-rate band or residence nil-rate band or to use available reliefs such as business property relief. Other bad practice included unnecessary lifetime trusts.

STEP said it last conducted a member survey like this in 2011 and that little had changed in that time. “Given the lack of progress since 2011, this demonstrates the need for action.”

The organisation made the case for regulation alongside the need for high-quality training and greater recognition of specialist will qualifications (such as its own) whether or not the provider was regulated.

Being a solicitor “does not mean that you have undertaken any specialist training in will drafting”, it pointed out.

One in five members (22%) said they had come across will-writers who claimed to be regulated when they were not, while 42% encountered will writers/estate planners who had an inappropriate relationship with another company they recommended, appointing themselves or a nominee company as executors and trustees, often charging “extortionate” rates.

More than half of STEP members had worked with families whose loved one’s will had disappeared with a company that had gone out of business.

A large majority (82%) favoured will-writing becoming a reserved legal activity.

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