Personally, I’m not planning to die... ever. I have far too much to do, and it appears I’m not alone.
A recent survey by Which? found that 56% of people don’t have a will, suggesting that most of us either have plans for immortality or just haven’t got around to it. So it’s galling to find that when people finally do get round to writing a will, they risk getting scammed.
The will-writing industry is a strange one. Solicitors can draw up wills – for which they need to be properly qualified and regulated by the Law Society. However, you don’t need to be a solicitor to be a will writer. You don’t need any qualifications, and you won’t be regulated.
Lorely Burt, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for business, enterprise and regulatory reform, says: “It is no exaggeration to say that will-writing has become a happy hunting-ground for incompetent, dishonest and fly-by-night operators.”
In some cases, this involves outright scamming. Some will writers offer a will for a low fee but keep adding extra services and charges. The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) came across one outlandish example where an elderly couple from Nottinghamshire responded to an offer of will-writing for £20 plus VAT, and ended up with a bill of £1,052.
In other cases, problems arise not through deliberate scamming, but incompetence. This can be a problem because will writers don't have to be qualified. Some have as little as three hours’ training, which means they can get wills wrong by making simple mistakes.
One old lady, for example, wanted to exclude her son from her will, as he had stolen from her in the past, and she hadn’t seen him for 20 years. She wanted her estate to go to her long-time carers instead. She used a will writer who advertised his services in the local paper.
After her death, however, her son found that her will had been drafted and witnessed incorrectly, making it invalid. This meant she effectively had no will, so he inherited everything after all.
Caroline Wallis, a partner at solicitors Boyes Turner, says there are some very common issues: “There can be problems with the way the will is witnessed. So, for example, the spouse of someone who is a beneficiary cannot witness the will – if they do, it will be invalidated. Alternatively, the way it is worded may have a different effect from that intended.”
An untrained will writer may also fail to ask the right questions. The Law Society came across a case where the wife’s will left a half share of the house to her husband. The writers did not check the ownership of the house, so never discovered it was owned entirely by the husband.
As a result, the whole will was nullified.
An additional problem is that while solicitors have to have professional indemnity insurance, will writers don’t. In both of the above cases, without insurance, there was nothing the clients could do.
If you are still keen to use an unqualified will writer, there are some big names in the business, including Which?. It has a useful questionnaire to check whether the service is appropriate for you; if you have a large estate or require a trust, you will be advised not to use the service.
Make sure that your will writer is a member of the Institute of Professional Will Writers or the Society of Professional Will Writers. Members have to sign up to a code of practice which, among other things, means they need professional indemnity insurance. These aren’t compulsory codes, but they are a start.
Whatever you do, it’s worth doing your research before getting into anything. Avoid succumbing to cold-calling or hard-selling – the Law Society discovered one will writer stopping mums in shopping centres and telling them if they didn’t get a will their children would go into care. Panic-stricken women were making wills there and then on his laptop.
So what if you have already used such a service? Wallis says: “If you've had a will drawn up by an unqualified will writer and you are worried about the contents, ring a solicitor and ask them to look over it. Anyone half-decent will be willing to check it over and make sure it’s OK.”
If you think you have been conned into paying too much, contact the CAB or your local Trading Standards through Consumer Direct. They will be able to track down the provider and see if you are entitled to recompense.
Making a will is a complex business, and picking the right person to draw it up is vital. However, that doesn’t mean you can afford to put it off, because although we all hate to admit it, we’re not really going to live forever.