Where there’s a will there’s a way to con

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Death, like politics and religion, is not widely mentioned in polite society.

It’s on a par with blocked drains and smelly toilets – a known fact of life, but a subject to avoid at all costs.

Research shows that a staggering 60 per cent of people die without making a will, leaving it open season for the government to cash in on the value of their worldly possessions.

Many people avoid making a will because they think it’s complicated and expensive.

But as others find out to their cost, unscrupulous predatory firms specialising in will writing can arrange to plunder their estate even before they pass away.

It’s a little known fact that anyone can set up in business to provide will writing, probate, and estate administration services.

Ever since they passed out of the hands of solicitors in the late 1980s, successive governments have made a virtue of applying ‘light touch’ legal services regulation, leaving the door open to a significant number of crooks and con artists poised to rip the public off.

No sooner than the ink was dry ending the monopoly of solicitors in this area of law, the rogue element started to move in.

According to the Trading Standards Institute’s Bryan Lewin, first out the starting blocks was serial fraudster Simon Harris, who on his release from prison saw the gap in the market and founded the Quill Group will writing franchise.

All the companies in the Quill Group were finally put out of business in the early 1990’s when the Department of Trade and Industry compulsory wound them up in the High Court.

But where Mr Harris moved in, others were sure to follow.

Enter Gerald Barton – a disqualified director – and his string of franchises going under the names of Willmakers Ltd and National Legal Services.

By the time Harris and Barton had been unmasked as will and probate rogues, thousands of clients were left out of pocket, and without access to their wills.

Undeterred another plausible will writing outfit, Stephen Share’s Solicitors Probate Services Ltd, ended up in the High Court in 2008 after a rigorous investigation by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority. They discovered that the ex-solicitor – who was finally banned from practising law for life in 2009 – had named himself or his company as executor in more than 4,500 wills.

Another dodgy trio behind will writing services formed Willmakers of Distinction UK. They were subsequently found to have stolen thousands of pounds from dead people.

Two of the men involved, David Nash and Nicolas Butcher, were sentenced in 2010 at Lincoln Crown Court to three and a half years behind bars, while the third, Raymond Prince, was handed down a one year suspended sentence.

While recourse to a friendly will writer does by no means guarantee you’ll automatically be fleeced of all your worldly wealth, the situation is serious enough for the Law Society to campaign for the regulation of will writers.

In July 2011 the Legal Services Board (LSB), having given due consideration to the advice they received from their consumer panel, started a statutory investigation into how best to protect consumers from will writing and probate services spivs.

After sifting through the evidence, the LSB is recommending to the government that regulation is re-imposed in the form of licensed activity by legal professionals under the 2007 Legal Services Act.

But that may be easier said than done.

The Institute of Professional Will Writers (IPW), a self-regulating trade body, claims now that the genie has been let out of the bottle it is very difficult to get an accurate picture of the scale of the problem and size of the will writing sector.

Many writers operate as ‘one man bands’ from home, and firms have hundreds of practitioners working for them on self-employed contracts.

The IPW has identified about 750 will-writing firms, and their research has uncovered another 158 companies with ‘Will’ in the name that had been dissolved in the last ten years.

The response to the LSB’s concerns from the government has not been encouraging, despite unearthing considerable evidence of poor quality wills and dubious advertising practices.

Christopher Matthews, an associate solicitor with Churchers solicitors, Fareham, is concerned that consumers deterred by false claims about solicitor’s charges, are being put at risk in the will writing free-for-all .

He said: ‘I strongly recommend your will is prepared by a solicitor or legal professional who is a member of Solicitors for the Elderly so you have the peace of mind knowing you are dealing with an expert who can advise on all the circumstances affecting your estate.

‘Never pay for your will upfront or let a sales person pressurise you into additional cost, any genuine professional will be happy to receive payment once the work is complete.

‘If the cost of the will sounds too good to be true it probably is.’

· We have been asked to make clear that there is no connection between the Simon Harris referred to in this article and solicitor Simon Harris of Stokes Solicitors LLP or with his firm. We are happy to make this clear.