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Warning over "unscrupulous and scaremongering" will-writing services
People across the country are being warned to beware some so-called professional will-writers who have been charging exorbitant prices for wills and other legal documents that are either inappropriate, inadequate or in some cases completely useless.
The warning comes after several elderly and vulnerable people were targeted by will-writing firms claiming to offer “specialist” advice on everything from making wills and avoiding inheritance tax to setting up trusts to avoid having to sell their home to pay for care in later life.
“We have been contacted by a number of people who have been either mis-sold a service they didn’t need, have been horrendously overcharged or have been given entirely wrong advice about writing a will or setting up a trust,” said Natasha Molloy, a specialist in wills and probate issues with Fentons Solicitors LLP. “Vulnerable and elderly people have been targeted, with these shameless charlatans using a sales technique based on fear – the fear of losing your house, your money, or the fear of your loved ones being left with nothing when you die.”
Natasha said in one case, a woman in her 90s was advised to pay several thousand pounds for a will trust and power of attorney, despite her age and circumstances meaning that neither of these were appropriate or suitable. In another case, a man whose wife had suffered a serious brain injury was charged several thousand pounds, which he paid in advance, for setting up lasting powers of attorney for himself and his wife – something the man’s wife was legally incapable of entering into because of her injuries.
“These unregulated will-writing firms are using the vilest of sales tactics, blatantly scaremongering and convincing people that they will lose out if they do not sign on the dotted line,” said Natasha.
“What’s equally disturbing is that these cases show that the advice being sold is at best inappropriate, but at worst incorrect and legally wrong.”
She said that in several cases, the victims had been cold-called and persuaded to meet the firm’s representatives – something that is strictly prohibited for regulated solicitors. “When these people show up at the house, they are scaring people into paying upfront for things that have no value in court, or pay three or four times what guidelines advise is a reasonable charge.”
Only recently, the first report by the Legal Ombudsman revealed that thousands of people were being ripped off by companies providing unregulated services such as will writing. Chief Ombudsman for England and Wales Adam Sampson called for action to be taken to ensure consumers were not left vulnerable by unregulated services.
“The ombudsman’s report highlights that will writing is one of the services which can be provided by unqualified and unregulated individuals and organisations,” said Natasha. “But clearly his findings are that those customers using such a service are left with little or no means of redress when things go wrong. What we’re witnessing now is unscrupulous, unregulated firms exploiting the fears of vulnerable people to line their own pockets. It’s utterly despicable.”
She said that some of the firms make bizarre claims in their literature or on their websites designed to highlight their expertise. “But claiming to use ‘the same secure storage facility as the Ministry of Defence’ cannot disguise a simple lack of actual knowledge,” said Natasha. “For example, to suggest that ‘making a will avoids the need for probate’ – as one such firm claims on its literature - is utterly ridiculous,” she said. “The probate process is used to administer a will, and is not something to be avoided.”
Another website even goes so far as to use the death of Michael Jackson to highlight the need for a will. “Making a will is vital to ensure that an individual’s wishes can be followed after their death, and that issues such as the care of family members and the distribution of estate can be handled quickly and efficiently,” said Natasha. “To try and scare people into paying over the odds for such a vital service – and using celebrity deaths in their marketing – is tasteless in the extreme.”
Consumer organisation Which? and the Law Society have already lent their backing to the ombudsman and called for more protection for customers.
“The ombudsman was established to give any legal client an avenue of help if they feel they have received a sub-standard service,” said Natasha. “But that can only be applied if the individual providing the service is actually regulated by the ombudsman.
“Some of these firms use ‘Legal’ in their name, even though most of the work is carried out by a non-legally qualified person,” said Natasha. “The ombudsman has no authority over such companies, and is powerless to help the client.
“The message is clear,” she said. “If anyone knocks on your door or telephones you trying to sell you a will, you should just hang up the phone or close the door in their face. For total peace of mind and reassurance, people looking to write a will or set up trusts should contact a local solicitor who is regulated by the SRA.” (UK Law Society, “Find a Solicitor” - http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/choosingandusing/findasolicitor.law)
If you think you have been mis-sold a will or trust, please contact your local Trading Standards office. You can find your nearest one using this postcode locator http://www.tradingstandards.gov.uk/advice/index.cfm.
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