Consmer Rights: Don't add to the grief of a bereavement

Always leave a will to make things easier for loved ones and beware of scammers

Some of the most heartbreaking cases I have come across in my 20 years helping British consumers relate to after a death. You may think that you will have space to deal with your loss but sadly all too often the bereaved become the target for scammers. So when coping with the loss of a loved one it is essential for you and those around you to be on guard and get the right help.

When a person dies somebody has to deal with their estate (money, property and possessions left). All the money has to be collected in from the different accounts, pensions or investments such as premium bonds or stocks and shares. Property may have to be sold. Debts have to be paid; income tax or VAT paid to Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs, businesses paid for work done or items bought. Benefits may have to be stopped.

Once all the assets have been added up and the debts, including the costs of the funeral, paid there may be inheritance tax to pay and the remainder has to be handed over to the person or people who are entitled to it.

A well-made will makes life easier for everyone involved. It will contain details of who is to be left what (the beneficiaries) and who is to be the executor(s), responsible for carrying out the instructions in the will. If the amounts of money involved are very small, and there's no property to sell off, banks or building societies may be prepared to hand over any money in accounts to the executor with just a copy of the will as proof. If the dead person's affairs are more complicated, the executor will need to get probate. Probate is the court's authority, given to the executor, to administer the deceased person's estate. The document you get when you apply for probate issued by the Probate Service is called a grant of representation. This document is proof to show the various account or asset holders (banks, building societies, investment fund managers, pension or insurance companies) that you are the person authorised to sort out the estate and to whom any assets should be released.

There are people making a living scamming others into thinking they may have been left money when they haven't. The lottery ("you have won a prize") scams have stopped being so successful because people have been warned about them, so scammers have moved on to probate scams. You may get an email claiming to be from a research specialist or an estate locator and that you have been left some money. Or they may say they have a report that shows that you are likely to be due an inheritance and for a fee you can have the report and help to claim the inheritance.

The scammer will have sent emails to thousands of people with the same name hoping that a few will believe the scam. Once you're hooked by the lure of the cash, you'll be asked to send money for fees or taxes before you can get your inheritance. That should set the alarm bells ringing. If you've genuinely been left money you won't have fees to pay. These kinds of emails will always be fraudulent. Don't reply to them and don't send any money or personal details. Information can be used to steal your identity or money. You can find out more on www.met.police.uk/fraudalert. You'll also find details of how to report these scams to the police.

Genuine and professional probate researchers and heir hunters don't make contact by email. They phone, write or visit and will have some form of identification.

If you are thinking of making a will to make things easier for loved ones, do it now. You can make your own will if you have a very straightforward estate. However, if there are any possible complications it can save money in the long run to have the will drawn up by an experienced solicitor.

Choosing executors is another potential minefield. If can be stressful and even family members on the best of terms can fall out over a will. You can appoint a professional – solicitor, accountant, bank manager – someone who understands tax, inheritance and property.

Be wary of will writers who insist you should use them as executors. You can use who you like.

How can I switch energy suppliers to avoid bills hike?

Q: I've been paying for my electricity and gas on a dual-fuel fixed-rate deal for almost two years and I know it's coming to an end soon. I'm worried that my bills will go up as it's already a struggle to pay out of my pension. I've had the same supplier for years and my son keeps telling me I should switch. I haven't done it before and don't understand how to go about it. Is it worth switching and how do I decide who to switch to? SK

A: It's hard to get your head around all the tariffs. However, once you've switched, saved some money and seen how easy it is you could become a regular switcher. Don't allow yourself to be talked into going with any company until you've done your research.

Your bills could soon go up by around £200. There are about 20 tariffs from the big suppliers ending in April. Check your contract to see whether you would have to pay a penalty if you switched before the deal ends. Then work out when is best to switch: it can take six weeks to switch to a new supplier. If you're on the internet look at comparison sites such as moneysupermarket.com. Smaller firms may offer better deals.

Which?, the consumer organisation, does a guide to switching at http://www.which.co.uk/switch/energy-advice/guide-to-switching-supplier. They explain all you need to know. If you aren't on the internet, ask your son to help you.

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