Probate services: sinners and saints

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Date: 1 September 2020

Papers reading 'Last Will and Testament' with fountain pen next to it

Until their parents die, I expect most people never come across the word probate. Then, suddenly one day, all that changes.

When someone dies, you are thrust into a situation where there are 101 things to do. Grieving is put to one side while a great list of arrangements are made. How should the funeral be run? Who needs to be contacted? Where will guests stay and who will feed them? Who is the best person(s) to do the eulogy? How much should you spend on the coffin and perhaps the urn? And so on.

My own family's funerals have been extremely rewarding, but the whole process was pretty exhausting for me and my four siblings. When it came to doing the probate (aka estate management: the process of dealing with the assets of someone who has died, in line with the instructions set out in their will) my sister was already feeling pretty worn out. So, with agreement and thanks from the rest of us, she did all the preparatory work and then handed it over to a professional to deal with.

So far so good. But let me share two cautionary stories about probate.

The first time I came across probate was in my teens, when my father became angry with the firm of solicitors handling the probate for his aunt, who had passed away more than two years earlier. He had been contacted by the solicitors straight after the funeral, to be told that he was on the list of people who had been left something in her will. But he had heard nothing since, so he called them up. To cut a long story short, he discovered that the solicitors, in cahoots with a local estate agent, had put his aunt's house on the market at a price so high that it all-but-guaranteed that no one would buy it. They both then sat back and enjoyed the lucrative monthly fee (justified as "handling the sale") that kept rolling in month after month.

My father considered complaining to The Law Society but was advised that this would be a complete waste of time. There was nothing illegal about the situation, as the correct pricing of the house was a matter for the qualified professionals to judge and decide. Furthermore, they were fully entitled to charge heavily for this service.

Years later, when seeking a trustworthy partner to provide probate services to the readers of Law Donut, I did some research and found that pricing for probate services was still hugely variable.

So the second story that I will share came from an article in the Guardian, about someone called Adam Walker. It had all started when his father died, leaving all his assets to Adam's mother. There were no other bequests or inheritance tax to pay. The assets consisted of the £300,000 family home, a £200,000 holding in an investment trust, and four savings accounts worth £50,000. Simple.

Adam and his brother, were both named executors in the father's will.

But there was a third executor in the will - a firm of London solicitors. And they could charge 'professional fees'. Adam asked what their fees would be, as these fees would come out of the money left to his mother.

The firm’s initial answer was the "How long is a piece of string?" line. But eventually they confirmed their standard charges: 1.5% of the estate, plus £325 an hour, plus £20 a letter, plus disbursements such as court fees plus VAT, so likely total would be £25,850. And the firm said that a bank would have been even costlier.

Telling the story, Adam said "The lawyer said that as the firm had been appointed, it had to act for us … but I discovered anyone - solicitor or otherwise - can renounce an executor appointment. I also found an online probate firm which quoted £6,300 - some 75% less."

Adam eventually won his battle and the London law firm resigned. The article went on to say that, having done some research, Adam found that the London firm's prices were neither much better nor much worse than most other firms.

The article then listed other examples of sky-high charges, such as a bank charging £40,000 plus VAT to administer probate that simply involved the closing of the bank account (£1m cash was the only asset).

But my own research uncovered another set of outraged members of the public, too. These were the people who had opted for cut-price services (often found online) that provided shockingly bad service from the moment the contract was signed. No communication. Long delays. Sums of figures that did not even add up. A prominent target of this criticism was a large company that has since been sold and resold, so hopefully things have improved.

The provider that we chose for Law Donut is called Kings Court Trust (KCT). They are well established, having completed 35,000 estate administrations, and they win industry awards for their service levels. They are not the cheapest provider, but I would certainly not want to burden Law Donut's users with the cheapest - at the bottom end of the market, you get what you pay for. I would recommend KCT as doing a good job for a fair price. I think fair is the word you are looking for when buying something like probate services.

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