STEP warns public against ‘cowboy’ will writers

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.

5 responses

  1. This report is largely based upon the opinions of solicitors who apprently rarely actaully read Wills.
    It also cautions you – in effect – against using a professional will writer who is a STEP Member, one who is regulated by the Society of Will Writers or the IPW.
    Frankly, it is a pathtic piece of will-writer bashing which cast doubts on many of its own members.
    Who would you rather have write your Will?
    A solicitor who did half a day on Wills 20 years ago or a regulated member of the Society of Will Writers or IPW with professional qualifications, professional back up, professional indemnity insurance and substantial experience?

    STEP has used a shotgun approach to a problem which does exist, but not amongst geneuine regulated professional Will Writers. An apology is required.

  2. A good reason to avoid joining STEP if this is how the treat even some of their own members. There are good and bad in every profession but I often read about solicitors being struck off and there are quite a few in jail.

  3. Having dealt with qualified will writers for 30+ years as an adjunct to financial advisory consultation, their standards has been excellent, knowledge excellent, and always of an extremely collaborative nature in offering suggestions and guidance – professional to the extreme.

    Turning to solicitors involved in probate however…

    I have seen beautifully crafted wills written by solicitors whereby they totally omitted guardians for young children; the same piece of land left to two different people; one extremely arrogant practitioner who totally fouled up a lady’s estate by misphrasing specifically listed instructions on assets within her will, which resulted in a charity losing out on a significant investment portfolio – but denied he had messed it up (he knew perfectly well he had) and tried to blame the investment house.

    One firm of solicitors who cunningly ‘had to see a client’ when the named partner retired, and wrote a codicil on her will to amend the executors to now be the named firm *but* at the same time, removed the daughters as joint executors – we spotted that one and killed it. One firm who wrote an LPA for a lady at extortionate cost, but then refused to give the LPAs to the named attorneys to action ‘as they were holding them for safe keeping’ (we had to get reissued copies from the OPG so they could run their mother’s affairs).

    Two firms who both denied they held client wills following mergers, and finally relented their protestations when their own yellowing letterheads confirming storage were produced as evidence!

    I could go on…

    The worst case of ethical behaviour was a solicitor who dealt with a client who died, and they had undertaken her conveyancing instructions in the past. Despite not being appointed as executor, he also possessed a set of keys to her properties; entered her house days after death, took all paperwork, and started undertaking probate. The named executors he would not communicate with, and when he applied for probate – guess what, it was refused. This went on for months. Despite being threatened with police action and reporting to the relevant Law Society, he still continued in the self belief of doing probate and then looking to charge the estate. I have yet to hear the outcome of this event, but such a ‘professional’ should never have even considered that he could act in such a cavalier manner.

    Solicitors should be banned from being executors on wills they have written. Financial advisers (usually) cannot be appointed unless a relationship is in place prior to the person becoming a business client – this should extend elsewhere.
    The ‘free will scheme’ also puts pressure on people for them to appoint said firm as executors.
    Firms also will fight rearguard actions when members of the family are looking to take on the role – we all know why.
    The Law Society does not like being criticised and taking complaints seriously (the ‘self appointed executor’ above, they really were not interested in taking further when initial communication was made by the legal executors).

    But none of the above will happen, and the Law Society will still continue to peddle the hang wringing lines of – “a professional will drawn up by a solicitor is always the best option” – as per their statements pertaining to the CMA review.

    Certainly not in my experience.

  4. I practised as an SRA regulated litigation solicitor for 15 years before changing career and setting up my Will writing business. Only having done a Wills and Probate module on my LPC in 1993/4, I would have been lost without the training and support provided by the IPW which has been superb and is sector leading – and I say that having studied for and gained the STEP Advanced Certificate in Will Writing. I carry more PII (£5m) than many solicitors and I have worked exclusively in this sector for almost 14 years. So it is a great shame that STEP has taken such a nakedly protectionist stance.

  5. Are the above two comments reading the same article , STEP are warning against cowboy will writers ?

    Please read again the cowboys are not STEP.

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