Julian Knight: Debt is as much about unhappiness as it is plain greed

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The Independent Online

Up to half of people in debt may have mental health problems, according to the Money Advice Trust charity. This tallies with my experience.

A few years back when working for the BBC, I spent a week interviewing people from a South London estate who had got into serious debt difficulty. There were single mums, single men in low-paid work or no work, and people whose partners had recently left them. Most were under treatment for depression – which in our society usually involves dosing people up and leaving them to their own devices. They were uniformly excluded by the banks (many relied on rip-off doorstep lenders), and were at the margins of our broken society. Loans were often taken out to pay for the kids' Christmas presents or to fix a broken washing machine or simply to buy something to make the individual feel at least a little bit a part of our must-have-now society. There was one man, in his late twenties and working collecting shopping trolleys at a supermarket, had taken out a loan of a few hundred pounds to buy a computer games system. With interest, he ended up owing over a thousand pounds. Was he irresponsible or, as most of us would feel in such a miserable situation, simply depressed?

There are many causes of debt, often interlocking – lack of basic maths skills and, yes, depression are two of the biggest. Soon after my time in South London, I was consulted over a BBC1 TV debt special and I explained that mental health issues, feelings of exclusion and, frankly, life disappointment, lay behind a lot of indebtedness. On the day, though, the producers preferred to use a case study of some twenty-something West London girl who was in debt due to her "addiction" to new shoes. She should have known much better, but the bank of mum and dad would no doubt ride to the rescue. Nothing could have been further from the life experiences of millions of debtors.

Will fury

I have received a huge response to last week's article "Beware the curse of the unwanted executor" which investigated how some banks, will-writing firms and solicitors offer free or cheap wills to consumers in the hope of installing themselves as executors and then charging huge fees when the estate goes through probate.

Some readers' stories are breathtaking; banks charging tens of thousands just to take money from a deceased's savings account and pay it to the rightful beneficiaries; unregulated will-writing firms acting aggressively when asked to step aside as executor, mindful, no doubt, that this is the only way they will keep their pounds of flesh.

A colleague of mine reported that he had seen a will-writing firm setting up a stall in a shopping centre – a little like those ghastly no-win-no-fee ambulance chasers – offering to write wills for free, probably naming themselves as executors and hoping down the line to scoop bumper fees.

The impression from your letters and emails has been that this problem is far greater than I first thought, that actually it's a quiet (so far) mis-selling scandal, that there are greedy, unscrupulous firms trying to do what amounts to robbing the dead.

Little surprises me in the world of money – the greed, the abject lack of morality over ripping people off and calling it marketing – but clearly the will market is like the Wild West, full of con artists and rip-off merchants.

It is in need of fee capping and regulation fast, because there are thousands of people out there who have wills with a massively overpriced, unregulated executor written in. Please continue to send me your stories and observations, we will be returning to this.

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