Julian Knight: At long last, moves to stop will-writers robbing the dead
Sunday 17 July 2011
Lots of people are daunted by the thought of making a will.
There's a combination of reasons for this such as concerns over solicitors' fees, ridiculous and unnecessary legalese used in will documents and just the sheer distaste many feel at the idea of the grim reaper.
No surprise, therefore, that two-thirds of us don't have a will. But even if you do not have much to leave, it's frankly a selfish act not to make at least some very simple provision because it makes the task facing those you leave behind more difficult and stressful, or at least that's the idea.
However, as we have exposed in this newspaper, the will-making industry is full of sharp practices, not so much from the local solicitors but through poorly trained employees of some will-writing firms. Some even set up stalls in shopping centres promising a cheap and easy will-writing service. But there is often a sting in the tail, in that these same firms and individuals – and anyone can set themselves up – will place their names as executors of the estate and be free to charge exorbitant fees on the estate when the will-maker dies.
In this way, the will-writing industry has managed to transform an act – making a will – which is meant to ease things for those you leave behind into an expensive future burden. And this is just one way that the will-writing industry is failing consumers. Poorly written documents, for instance, can lead to disputes and misunderstandings, while crass technical errors can even leave loved ones accidentally disinherited.
It is a minefield and we have been campaigning here at The Independent on Sunday for some order to be brought to this vital sector. Finally it seems that this may happen. Last week, the Legal Services Consumer Panel said that the will-writing industry in England and Wales must be regulated. It came to this conclusion after 10 months of investigating the industry – by mystery shopping and interviewing consumers – finding that there was "so much evidence of consumer detriment in the sector".
In fact, one in five wills drawn up in this country is believed to be deficient in some way, a truly appalling number. And in many cases this massive mis-selling won't come to light for years. Drawing up a poorly written will or one with huge executor fees is no better than robbing the dead.
But of course there are honest people in the will-writing industry sector. The Law Society governs solicitors while the Institute of Professional Willwriters has a code for members and has actively been asking for greater regulation.
But we have gone through the 10-month consumer panel process because the Government needed convincing that regulation was needed. Now it has the evidence in abundance, so let's hope it gets on with protecting consumers sharpish.
It's only a stay of execution
Cheques have been saved, hooray! The Payments Council representing the banking industry says that instead of getting rid of them by 2018, they will continue to be issued until a "suitable alternative" has been found.
Cue self-congratulatory announcements from consumer groups and the Treasury Select Committee. They had beaten back those pesky plans to deprive us of our sacred cheques. Pensioners will be able to write cheques for their grandchildren's birthdays and small businesses will be able to have their bills paid.
But how much use is this stay of execution? The crucial cheque guarantee system was scrapped a couple of weeks ago – which means in effect that consumers have no protection when accepting a cheque – and finding a retailer willing to accept one is next to impossible.
In short, the 2018 deadline may be gone but cheques are inevitably slipping into the ether. They just no longer have a definitive end date.
Loyalty doesn't pay
Here's some advice for you. Received your car insurance renewal quote recently? Well, chuck it away and get on a price comparison website so that you can shop around. You will almost certainly get a better deal elsewhere.
That advice isn't from me (although I happen to agree with it) but from a reader who had a renewal quote from Churchill insurance for £540 representing about a 30 per cent increase. The reader went on a comparison site and found the cheapest deal coming in at £450 from guess who – Churchill.
Rightly upset, the reader rings Churchill and asks it to give him the same price. In its wisdom, instead of apologising for being caught blatantly favouring new customers, the insurer has the brass neck to ask him to prove what he has told it by taking a screen grab of the price and emailing it. Only then will the insurer do the decent thing and give the lower price.
This is not an isolated incident of total disregard to even the bare bones of decent customer service. This year with premiums shooting up – in part due to ambulance-chasing law firms who staggeringly get many of their leads from insurers – the idea of loyalty being rewarded by insurers is dead. If you aren't prepared to switch, you will be taken for a mug.
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