Call for tighter will-writing laws as consumers duped
The private will-writing industry across Britain should be more tightly regulated as consumers are losing thousands of pounds to charlatans, a Scottish minister has told Panorama.
Consumers have complained of cheap will offers with escalating hidden costs. Beneficiaries have also had payouts stolen.
The Scottish Government is legislating to offer greater protection, but Fergus Ewing MSP, its minister for community and safety protection said the rest of the UK also needed to be protected.
The Legal Services Board (LSB), which oversees all legal services in England and Wales, has said it would look at "whether a different regulatory approach to will writing is needed".
Mr Ewing said the rest of Britain should follow Scotland's example. "The public have a right to be protected," he said, "in Scotland they will be.
"Anyone who is charging a fee for writing a will must be regulated. They must have appropriate qualification, they must have proper indemnity in place. At present none of this protection exists.
"I hope that justice will be done for people - throughout Britain, ideally - in protection against crooks, cowboys and conmen."
The Panorama investigation uncovered cases where initial will-writing fees of £75-£100 escalated to thousands of pounds, with clients and families of the deceased then being charged fee percentages for handling estates after death, which they were never told about.
One firm lost a will lost even though a fee was being charged for it to be safely stored. Other beneficiaries struggled to receive the money owed to them, and cheques from the firm they were dealing with bounced.
Wills of Distinction, a firm based in Lincoln, stole hundreds of thousands of pounds from its beneficiaries.
These included a hospice for the dying, St John's in north London, which had been left £130,000 by a man with terminal cancer, Paul Jefferson. It relies on charitable donations, but never received a penny.
Mary Neenan, a single mother from Birmingham, was also unexpectedly left a large sum when her friend Herbert Reeves died, but never received anything.
She said: "I brought my two daughters up on my own, and I would never have had that amount of money in my life. To have something like that £35,000-£40,000, would have been a life-changing amount of money for the three of us."
Ms Neenan went to the police, who uncovered the extent of the firm's fraud.
Two men, David Nash, the firm's founder, and Nicholas Butcher, a previously struck-off solicitor whom he employed, were sentenced in July 2010 to three and a half years in prison for their fraud and theft.
Neil Hollingsworth of the Economic Crimes Unit of Lincolnshire Police said:
"It's a despicable crime... I believe they thought they would get away with it.
"A lot of the times, probably 90% of those cases, the beneficiaries didn't know they were beneficiaries and so they weren't asking questions. I guess they probably thought they'd got the perfect crime."
Private will-writing companies now claim to write about 10% of all new wills, and the industry has grown with the increase in home and shared ownership.
More people now have something to leave behind and they are new competitors to old-established providers.
In the past, people either wrote their own wills, or traditionally, if they wanted professional help they had to go to a solicitor. But solicitors are governed by law; will-writing firms are not.
Richard Elmer, a solicitor at Burton and Co in Lincoln said: "We will strive mightily to get everything exactly as it should be.
"But like all solicitors, we are fully insured, we are fully regulated and there is ultimately the solicitors' compensation fund were there to be, God forbid, some mistake made by us."
This is the key difference which solicitors always point to, that on top of their professional training they have a profession-wide indemnity scheme, and profession-wide protection for clients.
There are self-styled professional bodies that represent private will-writers and amongst these there are examples of good practice and attempts at effective self-regulation.
However, there is no regulation by law and consumers are typically unaware of this fact and often appear to believe that will-writing companies are themselves legal firms.
Scotland's new regulations will come in to effect next year.
The Legal Services Board said it would soon be calling for evidence to assess whether regulation is necessary.
Panorama: Wills - The Final Rip Off?, BBC One, Monday, 9 August at 2030 BST and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.