In this interview, as part of their Legacy Limelight series, we get a glimpse into the work that the Smee & Ford Will reading and reporting team do, and the tales that they uncover every day.
Q: ‘Will Reading & Reporting’ isn’t exactly the kind of job you discover in Careers Advice at school – can you help us understand what it involves?
You’re right, we quite often get a funny look when we tell people what we do. But it really is what it says on the tin. We receive Wills from HMCTS (His Majesty’s Courts & Tribunal Service), we read them, and if someone has left a gift in their Will to charity, we make a report of the findings.
We receive over 5,000 Wills per week, on average, and our team examines each and every one.
When someone has left a gift in their Will to a charity, or perhaps several charities, we record the details of the gift and provide notifications to charities so they can arrange receipt of that donation and give their thanks.
Q: That sounds like a lot of work, and quite challenging in terms of the subject matter – how do you cope?
It is a very intense job, because of the volume of Wills we read. Of course, there are times when it gets even busier!
People do ask, ‘does it make you sad?’ and of course, there are always some Wills – will make you emotional. But this is our job, and we take it very seriously, because we want to ensure the person’s wishes are carried out, and that the charities benefit as intended.
We’re a really tightknit team, and we do support each other. Practically, we all proofread each other’s work before sending it to the charities, to ensure everything is as accurate as possible. More than that, we bounce off each other, and we can help lighten things when someone has had to deal with something particularly heavy. We really look out for each other, and there is access to a mental health counsellor if we need it. Plus, we have a big secret stash of chocolate, which helps!
Q: What do you enjoy about your job?
It’s all about the people. On the one hand, that means our team – we have a very long-standing team which says a lot about how much we care about the job and about each other.
On the other hand, it’s also about the people whose Will we are reading. A Will is not just a piece of paper, it’s part of a person’s life, and in this job, you often really get to know the person who wrote it. Some are very emotional; others are having their ‘final say’. It is a real privilege to get this incredibly private view into a person’s life and we feel very lucky to help ensure their wishes are fulfilled.
Q: What have you learned from your Will reading work?
This is not a job that you can learn quickly – it takes months, years, and in fact, we’re all still learning, as the way people create Wills evolves. You become quite adept at being able to predict which ones will have a gift left to charity, and how to carefully calculate the percentages left to multiple charities.
More generally though, I think reading so many Wills gives you an insight into life. I suppose unsurprisingly this job reminds you that you just don’t know when your time is going to be up. It’s so important to have a Will, so that your wishes are taken care of when that time comes. But also, to live your life and enjoy time with those loved ones you want to leave something to.
Q: What are some of the strangest, funniest, or loveliest things people have left in their Will?
- We often get to read about what funeral arrangements people want to make, and you’d be surprised how many people want to be buried alongside a previous partner, and not their current one!
- People can be very funny – one woman wanted the theme tune from ‘One Foot in the Grave’ to be played at her funeral. That really made me laugh.
- Another really funny one was a woman who left half a lemon to HMRC and a note which said – ‘see how much you can squeeze out of this’!
- A really shocking request was from a mother whose gift to her daughter was conditional on her maintaining the same weight – if she gained weight she wouldn’t inherit!
- A very sad one I read was from a young person who had clearly written their Will as part of their suicide note. It was evident from the charities they’d chosen to donate to what they had been struggling with.
- It’s not always the big gifts that matter. One man wanted to leave £5 to the guy in the fish and chip shop who served him every day. I think that gives you a little insight into their relationship and what it meant – it’s lovely.
- You can tell straight away when someone is going to leave a gift, by the way they write.
- The handwritten Wills tend to be less formal and more emotional. Often, I think these people are very close to the end of their life and need to create a Will very quickly. They can be very hard to read, and sometimes have a message signing off to say ‘thanks for everything’.
Q: How do you think people’s Wills changed in the time you’ve been reading them?
You do see changes in Wills when we go through big changes for example, during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Within the Will itself people generally seem to be moving towards simpler requests for their final arrangements. You see a lot of people wanting a woodland burial, humanist services and more economical, environmentally-friendly coffins.
Interestingly we see more people now expressing a desire for their digital data to be deleted. People seem more concerned with privacy and ensuring their details are protected. Perhaps this is a change driven by solicitors and Will writers, encouraging clients to consider it, and we’re noticing this more and more.
On technology, here in our team the process is easier now. The vast majority of Wills we receive are typed, which makes them much easier to read. In the past, as you can imagine, deciphering so many handwritten Wills took a lot more time.
Q: How do you think the Will reading and reporting role might change in the future? What role might that automation, or AI, play?
There are always ways that evolving technology can support us to do an even better job, in a more efficient way.
You might assume Artificial Intelligence would replace our team, but as it stands at the moment, the technology just isn’t there yet. Not only would machines struggle to read some of the handwritten Wills we still receive, it’s also vital these legal documents are processed accurately, and so that human check is necessary to avoid mistakes. More than that, I think there is an element of care that we bring in reading and processing these Wills to ensure that the deceased person has their wishes carried out – I worry that would be lost if the entire process were automated.
Q: How do you feel that your job reading Wills has an impact on your life outside of work?
While it’s been lovely sharing some of our stories here today, it’s not something that we usually do. We keep that respectful distance from chatting about the Wills themselves with friends and family. Wills are personal documents, and we’re very aware that the information they contain can be sensitive.
Where we do definitely notice our work coming into our home life is with our charity clients, who the team know very well from their many years of working here. Nicky and Grace are mum and daughter, both working in our team, and when they’re watching TV, if a charity advert comes on, both will race to shout out the charity number. Everyone says ‘oh, here they go again’!
Q: What advice, or special request, do you have for someone writing a Will?
Having a Will in itself is a really important thing to do, so just writing one is a great start. Then it’s important to keep it up-to-date. So often we’ll see a Will which talks about a ‘child’ but was written years ago – that person will have grown up, they may even be married and have a new name, and it’s important your Will is accurate so it can be executed properly.
If you are making an amend, a codicil can be a quick and easy tool to update your Will. However, do be mindful that codicil after codicil can sometimes end up with conflicting information, and they’ll revoke each other. Consider whether it might be a better idea to just re-write your Will.
Do try to have your Will typed, if you can, and proofread it plenty of times. It’s so easy to make a mistake, particularly if you’re copying and pasting sections, so read it a few times through. Mistakes will make it very hard for whoever has to execute your Will, so help them out by making sure it’s right.
Here in the team, we imagine what it will be like for our teammates having to read our Will. We’ve made sure if we are leaving a percentage of our estate to a charity, that those percentages are nice and simple (not 1.92%!) and any amounts given to anyone are listed in order. That would be really nice – if everyone’s gifts were listed in order of value!