A number of leading charities have defended the way they pursue legacy donations after The Times newspaper accused them of "trawling through public records of wills" so they can "chase bereaved relatives for gifts".
In a front-page article today, the newspaper said that large charities including the RSPCA, the WWF-UK and Age UK were using the services of Smee & Ford, a company that provides alerts about potential legacies, to track down bequests.
The Times investigation found on one occasion a grieving daughter was sent a letter by the RSPCA asking whether her father was dead yet. The letter was sent four months after the daughter’s mother had died.
A spokesman for the RSPCA said in a statement: "We were sorry to hear that this lady was upset to be contacted four months after her mother’s death. Once a will has been admitted to probate it becomes a public document. Probate was granted in February and we did not make contact with her for a further three months.
"We are respectful of people’s grief when they have lost a loved one and strive to correspond with our supporters and their families in a compassionate and appropriate way. We will continue to ensure we uphold the highest standards expected of us."
He added that most charities use services to track whether people had left them money.
A spokeswoman for Age UK said in a statement that it used Smee & Ford’s services to identify bequests left to the charity. She added: "When we have been notified in this way that a bequest has been left to us our practice is to wait for at least a further 10 weeks before taking any action ourselves, to allow the executor time to contact us. In many cases, they do so. If they don't we then write to them."
A spokeswoman for WWF-UK said that it pays a nominal fee to Smee & Ford to use its services and it handles its approaches to bereaved families in a "very sensitive way". She said that the charity normally tried to make contact with the family’s solicitors rather than dealing directly with family members.
Polly Avgherinos, director of Smee & Ford, said in a statement that it provided a "highly respected notification service" to charities that helps ensure that legacy donations are fulfilled. She added: "Legacies provide important income for charities and, based on the potential for fraud, mistakes or slow processes, these essential services safeguard those organisations who wish to receive information about donations."
The Institute of Fundraising and Remember A Charity said in a joint statement that charities have a legal duty to manage legacy gifts and ensure that the wishes of the donor are realised. They said that they will continue to work with charities to help them "uphold the highest standards expected".