There's more than one way to skin a cat and don't let them tell you otherwise

Here’s a cheery thought as the Christmas and new year holiday recedes from memory, apparently more people die in January than any other month of the year. It seems that divorce rates also spike in January. Whether these events are related is not clear, although the reasons for the high number of marriage breakups just after Christmas are more obvious than the reasons for dying.

Could it be overindulgence?  Or the stress of being cooped up with people we don’t really like for days on end and having to be nice to them? Or do people just manage to hold on for one last blast before kicking the bucket?  Whatever the reason, it does suggest that if you don’t already have one, at least one of your new year’s resolutions should be to write a will.

It is estimated that 60% of people die without leaving a will.  In a way this is understandable.  By and large we’re not very good talking about death or money, certainly not both together and considering your own demise is particularly unpleasant (if you really want to give yourself a fright, try the death clock, which predicts the day you will die.  Nice).  But not leaving one, or not updating the one you wrote 20 years ago before you got married, had a child, got divorced, got married again and had another child, can have serious consequences for those you leave behind.

Lawyers would have you believe that the only ‘proper’ way to write a will is to get one of them to do it.  This, of course, will probably part you from upwards of £100, depending on how straightforward or not your circumstances are.  What they won't tell you is there are alternatives, often much cheaper and in many cases just as good, including will writers, banks, online wills services and, providing you know how to ensure its valid, writing it yourself.

It would be uncharitable of me to suggest that when it comes to will writing lawyers are acting entirely out of self interest.  It’s true lawyers are insured and there is somewhere to complain if things go wrong.  However, it certainly isn’t true that lawyers are necessarily the best will writers or the only regulated providers.

Mystery shopping carried out last year by the consumer watchdog for the legal market, the Legal Services Consumer Panel, found wills prepared by banks as the best.  They may be held in even lower esteem than lawyers, but banks are also regulated and are often far more accessible.  They may not be the only other regulated provider for long.

The Legal Services Board is examining whether will writing, probate and estate administration should be a reserved activity, ie only available from approved providers.  Its priority is to minimise consumer detriment, but it is unlikely to take any action that significantly reduces consumer choice, so I don't think lawyers will end up with the  monopoly they crave.

I am sure at least part of the problem is that many lawyers who have, shall we say, a restricted view about will writing have no idea of the alternatives.  They probably regard other providers as less qualified, less competent and less scrupulous versions of themselves (which some of them surely are).  Their animosity to online wills, if they’ve even heard of them, is probably based on the assumption that it just involves dropping your name and address into a pre-prepared document.

In neither case is this true.  There is no reason why will writers who aren’t lawyers can’t be properly qualified and insured, and if they are they may even be better at it than a lawyer who does a bit of will writing and a bit of other stuff as well.  As for online wills, lawyers would do well to embrace the idea.  The systems behind them are far more sophisticated that you might think and in any case most include a provision for lawyer review before the will is signed and sealed.

Not only can online wills save lawyers time and increase their productivity, because they eliminate human error they are probably far less likely to include mistakes.  And they should deliver a cheaper, more convenient and more efficient service for the consumer.  I’d say it was a win win.

I can appreciate lawyers are unlikely actively to encourage DIY wills, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t.  I am not going to suggest it’s for everyone, but I am quite sure the sort of person who would want to write their own will is the sort of person who is quite prepared to read about it and make sure they do it properly.

No-one, including me, is going to encourage people to write their own will if it isn’t going to be straightforward.  I accept it may not always be clear if personal circumstances are straightforward, but a carefully worded questionnaire should be more than enough to determine whether someone should go ahead with a DIY or online solution.  It’s ridiculous to imply that every will needs to be drafted and overseen by a lawyer.

Horror stories do happen, but you can’t protect people absolutely from mistakes and you can’t stop people being careless.  What you can do is ensure consumers have the information they need to make the right choice for them.  But you also have to ensure the default option (ie not making a choice) is a safe one and at the moment that’s not the case.

Not making a will is a bad option and the will writers, regulators and government need to find a way to encourage more people to write one.  There are surely numerous opportunities for professionals to thrust information about wills in front of people:  GPs and midwives delivering ante-natal care; conveyancers; vicars and registrars marrying people; divorce lawyers and marriage guidance counsellors; pension and life insurance providers, just to suggest a few.

What we need is more will writing not less.  By all means, regulate to protect consumers but don’t restrict their options or even less than one in three will get around to it.  I finally got around to writing mine last year, and yes, I did use a lawyer (it was free!).  So I am, at least in one sense, ready for my end, although it seems I have until 11 July 2051.

Posted in: Legal services

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