Richard Radcliffe: Where there's a will, there's a lawyer - or is there?

Solicitors must be treated with respect, because many already distrust charities seeking legacies, writes our columnist

Richard Radcliffe
Richard Radcliffe

As more and more charities strive to seek legacies, they are energetically trying to find solicitors to help run free or discounted will services for their supporters.

At the same time, new providers are knocking on charity doors saying "we can come to your home to help make your will" or "you can do it online in minutes".

Most of us are more than aware that the number of contested wills is going through the roof (and often the roof of the courts). Some sources say the number of contested charitable wills has increased by more than 500 per cent in 10 years, mainly because of the increasing number of fragmented families.

Before I go any further, the reason I am concentrating on wills, not gifts in wills, is that it ought to be crystal clear that you cannot make a gift in a will without a will. Solicitors make wills and the existing guidelines insist, rightly, that solicitors must be used – or members of the Institute of Professional Willwriters.

But another big problem we have is getting people out of their beds to run to their solicitors. When you retire would you prefer to plan a holiday or a cruise, or go to a solicitor? It’s a no-brainer, though booking a cruise on a dodgy ship might encourage someone to write a will.

Given the plethora of will-making schemes, I began to wonder what solicitors feel about charities, especially after the recent decision in the Supreme Court in Ilott v Mitson. The charities involved were brilliant in promoting the freedom for us all to put what we want in our wills, but it was also another case that hit the headlines and might have riled some people.   

So we have started some research with retired solicitors who are charity volunteers. They visit their old mates still in practice or just contact local firms. So far this is a small survey with only three charities taking part, but other charities are welcome to join in.

The initial findings are disturbing. To summarise, they feature solicitors (who are NOT willing to go public) expressing some incredibly vituperative views about charities chasing them and their clients for the money. This feeling also been clear when I meet family members who are executors on a relative’s estate.

Many solicitors began to share that view after the Gill case of 2010. I understand that an online group of lawyers were quite vicious about charity practice, with many saying they would never recommend a client to remember a charity in their will.

Thankfully, a few weeks ago the Institute of Legacy Management issued a best-practice guide for charities.  

Solicitors are incredibly important gatekeepers to charity legacy income, now valued at £2.5bn. But how much has been lost or prevented by grumpy solicitors, and how much more could be lost if we do not address this issue head on?

It is absolutely right, in these times of fragile trust and confidence in the sector, to use the very best will writers to ensure best practice is followed: in other words, making use of solicitors rather than cowboy outfits that are trying to become executors and take an unregulated amount of commission from the value of the estate.

It should be remembered that the world of will writing is unregulated, which is extraordinary in itself.

In these times of new regulations, making the acquisition of new donors a nightmware, we ought also to look at our potential enemies: some solicitors. Well, maybe the word enemies is too strong because none of us know the actual split between friendly and unfriendly members of that profession.

But research done by retired insiders makes me believe the outcomes because they are trusted retired colleagues who know the game. It is not a simple survey on the phone or by questionnaire – it is an unattributed chat with an equal.

And we must remember that some of these solicitors are fighting the corners of their private clients in challenging charitable wills.

The will power of solicitors is strong, and they are on both sides. We must strive to treat these gatekeepers and family members with more respect.

Richard Radcliffe (FinstF Cert) is founder of Radcliffe Consulting, a consultancy that helps gets more legacies for charities. He is also author of Why Legacies are Brilliant for Charities and How to Get Them, published by Smee & Ford

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