The writes and wrongs of a testament through the post

In her second article on wills, Frances Way looks at the pitfalls of doing it on the cheap
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The Independent Online
THE past five years have seen a considerable expansion in companies offering will-writing services through the post. The fees are usually fixed, whatever the size of the estate, at around pounds 50 for a single will and pounds 80, inclusive of VAT, for mirror wills.

The usual format is that you send off for a will-writing pack, which contains a series of questions about your estate and your wishes, plus some simple advice about making a will. The company will then prepare a will for you and send it to you with advice on how to get the will properly signed and witnessed.

The fact that you can do it all quickly by post and be sure of just paying one fixed fee is the main reason people choose a will-writing company for this service rather than a solicitor or a bank.

The legal profession, perhaps unsurprisingly, regard such companies very cautiously, and believe that nothing can satis- factorily replace a face- to-face, tailor-made interview. They also point out that many solicitors are willing to visit people at home if they are unable to go to their offices. Bank staff may also make home visits or interview by telephone. The staff at will-writing companies are not, as a rule, legally qualified.

A company that offers wills by post should be vetted carefully before you decide to use it. Usually you have to part with your money before you receive the information pack. It is therefore essential to make sure that the company offers free telephone back-up advice rather than rely solely on a series of questions. Also ensure that the company has professional indemnity insurance.

The greatest danger in using a company, rather than seeing a professional adviser on a personal basis, is that important matters may be omitted or forgotten by the person making the will. The person making the will may not realise the full legal implications of his or her instructions, and mistakes may go unnoticed until it is too late.

Some estates will be too complex for such companies to handle. Foreign property, elaborate trusts and complex family set-ups cannot be catered for by a simple series of questions and answers. Large estates would also benefit from more detailed inheritance-tax planning. Inheritance tax is payable at a rate of 40 per cent on an estate of more than pounds 154,000. But it is not levied on gifts to spouses and charities. A solicitor may be able to help you reduce inheritance tax through your will and by making gifts before your death.

Richard Hollender, managing director of Willmaker, says will-writing companies such as his own are not intended to replace solicitors but to fill a gap in the market for those who do not want to use solicitors for whatever reason. The company will also update a will whenever asked for pounds 25. Family rows at Christmas are particularly good for business.

Cost should not be the only deciding factor when making your will. You need to consider the complexity of your estate and whether your bequests and legacies will be straightforward or need a trust. Most people take comfort in the knowledge that friends and family will be properly provided for, and that the taxman will not walk off with the lion's share.