Scam Watch: Rogue will writers
Most of us spend a lot of our time building up assets so that we can live comfortably and look after our families. But a shocking number of us don't take any time to consider what will happen to our assets and who will look after our families if we die.
A survey by SunLife found that only a third of UK adults has a will. That means the majority of people are leaving it to fate and assuming that when they die their assets will be passed on to the right people. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen.
"People tend to have very clear ideas about how their finances and property should be handled," says Gillian Coverley, partner and head of the wills, trust and estates team at Irwin Mitchell Solicitors, "but the only way to guarantee it will happen is by preparing a legally valid will".
If you die without a will, you are classed as having died intestate and your assets are divided and handed out in line with the Rules of Intestacy, which were drawn up in 1925. Unsurprisingly, they are a little out of date.
"The risks of dying intestate are substantial," says Emma Myers, head of wills, probate and lifetime planning for Saga Legal Services. "The current rules of intestacy are quite archaic and only benefit spouses or civil partners and blood relatives, regardless of your partner's feelings towards them. This could mean people you want to inherit - for example, friends or stepchildren - miss out."
Intestacy rules were updated last month with some of the more outdated elements removed but they still don't recognise many modern living situations. Under the current intestacy rules, if you die married and without children your spouse or civil partner inherits everything.
If there are children, then your spouse gets the first £250,000 and half of what remains with the rest going to the children. This means that if your house is worth more than £250,000 your spouse could face problems sorting out how to split the remainder with your children.
The current rules also cause big problems for unmarried couples and anyone with a blended family, as stepchildren aren't recognised under the rules. If you are unmarried, your estate will pass to your parents if they are alive or otherwise it will go to your siblings, half-siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles or the government in that order, bypassing any non-blood relatives.
"Many people don't ever make a will and die without one because they assume that their partner will automatically inherit everything. This is not true," says Sue Davison, spokesperson for Will Aid. "For example, people who are not legally married are not automatically entitled to anything from the estate of their partner.
"The high divorce rate and mobility of modern life makes it more important than ever for people to make a will and review it regularly to ensure that provision is made for those they care about and are responsible for."
So that is why you need a will. But just having a piece of paper with your wishes on it isn't enough to make sure those wishes are carried out.
Do it yourself
You need to make sure your will is legally sound. You can write it yourself but only do this if your estate will be very straightforward to dispose of and make sure your will is signed by two witnesses and dated.
If you are at all unsure about writing your own will, get it done by a professional. Otherwise, when the time comes your will may not be deemed legally valid, in which case you are back to being considered to have died without one and your estate will be split according to the rules of intestacy.
Many people turn to a professional will writer to draw up a will and in many cases this works out fine. However, will writers are unregulated and anyone can set up as one without any legal qualifications. As a result, there are many scam artists out there waiting to separate you from your cash.
One case that was reported to Moneywise involved a whistleblower who had been employed by a convicted fraudster setting up as a will writer. He and a colleague offered people cheap wills, only to then scare customers with tales of having to sell their houses to pay for care home fees. They would then offer to set up a trust to protect their assets for several thousand pounds.
Not only is this very expensive, the trust and will you end up with isn't worth the paper it is written on, according to the whistleblower, as the gentleman writing them has no legal or financial experience. To make it worse, most of the people who have handed over their money for these wills and trusts will never find out - that discovery will be saved for their beneficiaries.
"We have seen a worrying trend where more and more Brits are attempting to save money by not making wills or appointing friends and family as administrators to save on costs," says Paula Myers, partner and head of Irwin Mitchell Solicitors' will, trust and estate disputes team.
"Estate administration is a specialist area of law and not getting advice can lead to potentially serious pitfalls such as failing to take advice on distributing the estate or a lack of awareness of the tax issues that surround administering an estate. This often means such steps lead to a false economy."
You are far better off going to a professional solicitor to have your will written. Not only do their legal qualifications mean they can make sure your will is legally binding, they are also regulated by the Legal Ombudsman and have to comply with strict rules.
"The Law Society has strongly campaigned for the use of a solicitor when it comes to drafting your will," says Andrew Caplen, Law Society president. "Using a solicitor gives you peace of mind because they are regulated and insured." This insurance means your money is protected if you are unhappy with the service and the solicitor is found to be at fault.
Many of us are put off using a solicitor because of the cost but these days getting a will drawn up doesn't have to be an expensive affair. You can get a single basic will written by a solicitor for around £140.
Another good reason to use a solicitor is that for an extra fee they will often act as one of the executors of your will if you ask. This can be a great help if your estate is likely to be complicated as it means an impartial, knowledgeable person will sort everything out after your death. They will also keep a copy of your will on file, so as long as your beneficiaries know which solicitor you used you don't have to worry about losing your will.
Once you have your will written, make sure you keep it up to date. "An event such as a marriage, new addition to the family, or a change of property might require an amendment to your will," says Shaun Parry-Jones, partner and head of the trust team at Hart Brown law firm. "A will that is not up to date can be as damaging as not having a will at all."
If you want to find a good solicitor to write up your will, you can search for ones in your area either via Will Aid by visiting willaid.org.uk or calling 0300 0300 013. Or you can find one via the Law Society at solicitors.lawsociety.org.uk or call 020 7320 5650.
The Legal Ombudsman can help if you have a bad experience with a solicitor and wish to make a complaint. It will investigate your complaint and help you to resolve the problem.You can contact it at legalombudsman.org.uk or call 0300 555 0333.
If you have had an issue with a professional will writer, then the first thing to do is see if they are a member of a professional body such as the Society of Will Writers or the Institute of Professional Willwriters. If they are, you can complain to the professional body, which will investigate. But as will writers are unregulated, you may struggle to get any recompense.
The process of applying for the right to deal with a deceased person’s estate. If a person has left a will, they will usually have appointed a will executor. The executor then has to apply for a ‘grant of probate’ from the probate registry, which is a legal document that confirms the executor has the authority to deal with the affairs of the deceased. If a person dies without making a will, intestacy law applies (see intestate).
If you die without making a will, your estate will be divided up and distributed according to a set of complicated procedures laid down by the law as set out in the Administration of Estates Act 1925. The more complicated your life, the more complicated the intestacy laws after your death. Given that 60% of registered deaths last year were intestate, according to Title Research, the only way to ensure your estate is divided according to your wishes is to make a will.
If you’ve have a complaint about a financial service product you have bought but the company you bought it from refuses to resolve your problem after eight weeks, the Ombudsman can help. The Ombudsman will investigate and resolve the matter. The Ombudsman is independent and its service is free to consumers. The Ombudsman may find in the company’s favour but consumers don’t have accept its decision and are always free to go to court instead. But if they do accept an Ombudsman’s decision, it is binding both on them and on the business.
Everything you own: all your assets (property, cars, investments, savings, insurance payouts, artwork, furniture etc) minus any liabilities (debts, current bills, payments still owed on assets like cars and houses, credit card balances and other outstanding loans). When you’re alive this is called your wealth; when you’re dead, it becomes your estate.