Doubts grow on will firms

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QUILL WILLS - a business that franchised out will-writing services - was wound up last month by the Department of Trade and Industry 'in the public interest'.

Two years ago an associated company, Quill Testamentary Services, was similarly closed. Although the action was taken to protect franchisees, the winding-up orders also raise questions about the security and appropriateness of will-writing businesses in general.

Which? magazine has cautioned about using will-writing agencies, and last year warned that one company was trying to avoid legal responsibility for errors by entering a 'no liability in the event of negligence' clause in the contract. However, this may have no legal standing.

The Law Society, of course, recommends that only solicitors should be used. Karen Aldred of the society said: 'There are wider issues involved in drawing up a will than just the transferring of a property. Solicitors offer a full tax-planning service. Will-writing agencies may get income from selling insurance on the back of the will-writing; they are getting a hidden income. A solicitor is independent, and will account to the client.' In other words, the solicitor will forgo commission, and instead charge the client a fee for the advice.

Ms Aldred also strongly advises that people should not write their own wills. 'The old adage is that a solicitor who is his own client is a fool. There is a lot involved.'

The Consumers' Association, which publishes a guide, Make Your Will, recommends doing it yourself in some circumstances, but also advises against using will-writing agencies. Roger Taylor from the association said: 'Our conclusion was that wills were generally OK from will-writing agents, but we did come across one example of an agent who did not know what it was doing, so they are probably better avoided. They may not have much legal training, it can be as little as a two-day course, and they may not spot potential difficulties.

'Some will-writing services are very competent - one is run by a former barrister - but some are not, and it is difficult to know which is which. They should be OK if it is a simple will, in which case you might as well do it yourself. If it is complicated then I would say go to a solicitor for safety.'

There is little price difference between most solicitors and the will-writing agencies. A charge of pounds 25 to pounds 30 is reasonable for a simple will, and most solicitors and agents will give a quote in advance. Only a few solicitors, however, will give estimates for being executors.

A fee of 1 per cent of the estate's value is reasonable for acting as executor, although many agents, solicitors and banks charge 3-5 per cent. Some charities will put individuals in contact with solicitors, while Barnardos will act as executors in return for a suitable bequest.

To avoid fees, it is common to name two or more beneficiaries as executors, subject to their agreement, but it is sensible to name a solicitor as well to help with legal problems.

(Photograph omitted)

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