Poor testament to free market: Your legacy could turn out to be a shock to your heirs if you fall foul of a cowboy will-writer

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The Independent Online
THERE is an urgent need for regulation to protect the public from unqualified will-writers.

They could be preparing wills that are invalid, leaving families without their proper inheritances. They may also charge excessive fees for storing wills, and use will-writing as an excuse to get a foot in the door to sell life insurance. There is no regulation over their activities and the Government is doing nothing about the problem. Will-writing used to be the domain of solicitors. It has never been a great money- spinner - a simple will usually costs about pounds 50. A husband and wife will pay about pounds 80 for a pair of wills.

Over the past few years, will-writing concerns have sprung up. Some have flash offices, others set up stalls in markets and shopping precincts.

In principle, trying to popularise wills is a good thing, since 60 per cent of people do not make wills and would not go near a solicitor to make one.

Some will-writers are very competent, have insurance in case anything goes wrong, and bring a healthy element of competition for solicitors. They may even be cheaper.

However, some will-writers are totally unqualified. Anyone can set up in business as a will- maker without any training, or with just a day or two as part of a franchise package.

The Independent has seen examples of incompetent wills drawn up by will-writers. One had a single witness signature instead of two - a mistake that rendered the will invalid.

Some will-writing companies are set up as a 'front' for selling insurance - the real money-spinner.

Unlike solicitors, will-writing companies do not have to maintain insurance. If they get the will wrong - and it could be years before you find out - they may not be traceable.

There have also been complaints about excessive charges for storing wills, misleading advertisements and cold-calling to drum up business.

When the Government opened up conveyancing, it insisted conveyancers had to be licensed. But anyone can make a will.

Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield, says: 'I have always been in favour of competition - it benefits the consumer. But there is a dramatic need for regulation in the will-writing business. Some of my constituents have suffered because of will-writers.'

Some will-writers have joined together to draw up voluntary standards. So far the Institute of Professional Will- writers has 70 members. John Stribblehill, a spokesman for the institute, says: 'We keep telling the Lord Chancellor that will-writing needs regulation to keep out the cowboys, but he does not seem interested.'

The Law Society has also asked the Government to regulate will-writers.

A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor said: 'We have no regulations and we have no plans for them.'