The public has been warned of the dangers of “cowboy” will writers by the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) following the publication of its new report on the unregulated will writing sector.
According to STEP, “dishonest, unqualified, and incompetent” will writers are causing bereaved families significant distress and leading to millions in extra tax being paid.
Its report draws upon 329 STEP members’ experience in the will writing sector. 79% said they had come across wills with errors, and over half (54%) highlighted their concerns about rogue firms making false claims about wills leading to increased tax bills.
Concerningly, 63% said they have come across cases where a will writing company has quoted a fee for writing a will but then charged additional costs not covered within the terms of business.
As well as this, over half have come across firms making false claims about the wills they are selling to clients. 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,” added STEP.
A third of respondents had also come across cases where incompetence has led to significant tax bills, with examples of tax charges in many instances in the tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds and in a few cases up to £2 million.
Further independent research commissioned by STEP – which surveyed 2,000 members of the public in the UK aged 18 and over – found that 49% do not have a will, increasing to 65% among people aged 45-54.
Of the 51% who have a will: 55% got their will from a qualified solicitor/will writer; 22% got a low cost will online (only 3% of people checked that the online will writer was qualified) – increasing to 32% of people aged 18-24; and 22% wrote their own DIY will – increasing to 34% of people aged 18-24.
“These findings are sadly not surprising,” said Sarah Manuel, Head of Professional Standards at STEP:
“Anyone can set themselves up as a will writer leaving unsuspecting members of the public without protection. All too often, people don’t realise that they have been a victim of rogue will advice until it is too late for themselves and their families.
STEP members have reported many examples of rogue firms and cowboy will writers charging hidden fees and even appointing themselves as executors to exploit vulnerable clients for financial gain.
False promises about avoiding care home fees and misleading advertising are commonplace. Far too many people are lured into thinking getting a free or cheap will online will save them money when this is not always the case. Our members have seen cases where unscrupulous will writers have added in thousands of pounds worth of hidden charges, and people have been left with huge tax bills.”
STEP added that they have written to the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) as part of its investigation into the unregulated legal services market – putting the case forward for regulation alongside the need for high-quality training and greater recognition of specialist will qualifications.