Old and vulnerable people are being targeted by unscrupulous will writers who are charging sky-high fees to write wills that are often not legally binding. In some cases entire legacies have been stolen from beneficiaries by rogue will writing firms.
This scam has come to light after Fergus Ewing, Scottish minister for community and safety protection, aired his concerns about the will writing industry, saying it should be more tightly regulated.
He says: “Anyone charging a fee for writing a will must be properly regulated. They must have appropriate qualification and a proper indemnity in place. At present, none of this protection exists.”
A BBC1 Panorama documentary, aired last night, revealed just how deep the problems run and has triggered a mixed reaction from the will writing industry as it attempted to defend its practices.
Ruth Meyer, a will writing specialist at solicitor Boyes Turner, and a member of Solicitors for the Elderly, says: “Currently, will writers can call themselves such with just a few hours’ training and many operate without indemnity insurance which means if the will turns out to be invalid, the consumer has no legal recourse.”
Many wills that are not completed by a qualified solicitor are a long way from satisfactory, she claims – often due to rules surrounding witnesses. “You will need two independent witnesses to make sure the will is legal and neither can be a beneficiary or married to a beneficiary. This becomes especially problematic when a husband and wife leave all their assets to each other and believe they are acting as witnesses too.”
Without a legally–binding will, you will die intestate. This means the assets may fall into the wrong hands, including to HM Revenue & Customs. “A will that is not legally-binding is as good as making no will at all,” adds Meyer.
The rise in the use of standalone will writers rather than qualified solicitors is partly down to financial strain following the recession, as well as a belief that solicitors’ charges are expensive and opaque.
But Meyer says that while will writers’ fees may initially appear cheaper, they often conceal several ‘add-on’ charges that render the service more expensive than if it was carried out by a qualified solicitor. “We know of one company, for example, that charges £100 a year to simply store the hard copy of the will whereas a solicitor would charge nothing,” she says.
However, Paul Sharpe, chairman of the Professional Institute of Will writers (IPW) – a self-regulatory body for UK will writers – defends his industry and says solicitors don’t actually have to study will writing in order to offer the service.
In contrast, he says all members of the IPW have to adhere to a code of practice approved by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and they are required to undertake regular training to refresh and update their knowledge of will writing.
“This means they have better direct expertise in the particular field,” he adds.
Sharpe, who campaigns for formal regulation of the industry, says that all IPW members must also carry up to £2million of indemnity insurance.
“However, in the 20 years that IPW has been in existence, it has not seen one successful claim. Our indemnity premiums are also so low they would send solicitors into a sobbing heap – which says a lot in itself.”
The Legal Services Board that oversees all legal services in England and Wales, including will writing, has said it now intends to look at whether a “different regulatory approach to will-writing is needed”.
If you are going to use a will writer, make sure they are fully qualified and a member of the IPW.