New Law Journal April 2011
The countdown has begun until the Legal Services Act 2007 comes in to force in October. Revolutionising the provision of legal services, the Act is intended to ensure that consumers can access services of better value and quality with ease. Indeed, the uptake of new business models has already been greeted positively by consumers; in a recent YouGov survey, 60% of consumers said they would buy legal advice from big brand names.
This changing legal landscape will be particularly pertinent to the wills and probate sector; one area of law which nearly every member of the public is likely to encounter in their lifetime whether they are writing a will, or they are the beneficiary or executor of a will. Underpinning the work of solicitors in this sector, are the vital services provided by professional probate genealogists. Working for solicitors, executors, trustees or beneficiaries, these probate professionals identify and trace heirs, in addition to locating beneficiaries under will or intestacy rules.
On the face of it, Alternative Business Structures (ABS’s) are well suited to provide will and probate services; they are not only consumer facing but are accessible to the general public, usually available on their local high street. Earlier this month, WHSmith became the latest high street brand to extend their existing offer beyond books, magazines and stationery to legal services, joining the likes of Co-Operative Legal Services. However, the extent to which these ABS’s can offer their customers a fully integrated services is questionable. This question mark is particularly relevant to the will and probate sector where, although a customer can purchase a will ‘over the counter’, that customer will not be entitled to probate services and executor support.
In seeking to achieve an integrated service therefore, probate genealogists and ABS’s will need to work together to offer a comprehensive wills and probate service, which extends beyond drafting wills to include; missing heir location, missing wills service, tracing missing documents and next of kin, in addition to estate distribution. This approach is beneficial for both consumers and solicitors. For consumers, it can help those whose cases are more complex, such as where one needs to trace overseas beneficiaries or where there are no known next of kin. Moreover, by opening up the provision of will and probate services and encouraging the roll out of ABSs, there will be more competition in the provision of legal services which in turn will lead to greater variety of choice for consumers, as envisaged in the Legal Services Act. Emerging ABS’s will be able to provide a range of services including:
- Identifying and corresponding with the Personal Representatives and beneficiaries of the estate throughout the estate administration
- Identifying and corresponding with all financial institutions and organisations relevant to the estate throughout the estate administration
- Identifying, verifying and valuing all assets based in England and Wales
- Gathering all the assets of the estate
- Transferring all jointly held assets into sole name, including property
- Paying any debts and liabilities from the estate
- Preparing the accounts of the estate for the beneficiaries
- Distributing the estate to the beneficiaries
- Setting up any trusts relevant to the estate
- Writing a new single Will for the surviving spouse, if required
There are also multiple benefits for solicitors in an integrated approach to which sees probate genealogists and ABSs working hand in hand. It may, for example, be a requirement of a solicitor’s insurance policy to instruct a probate genealogist to trace a missing will in the case of intestacy. This will ensure that solicitors are able to avoid unnecessary costs, whilst minimising the risk of overlooked beneficiaries. Moreover, with the move towards outcomes focussed regulation instilled by the Legal Services Act, this will also allow for continued flexibility over charging, on the basis that it is right for the practitioner to look at a variety of fee options and to select the arrangement which is most appropriate for the circumstances.
Whatever the outcome of this debate, it is clear that there is a broad benefit to be brought to consumers through close co-operation between ABS’s and professional probate genealogists in wills and probate service provision. Working alongside probate genealogists is and will remain particularly important because the issues surrounding wills and succession are often complex and thus probate genealogists can offer assistance with difficult cases, such as those involving no known next of kin or cross-border issues such as overseas beneficiaries in order to achieve a successful result for the client.
The opportunities to diminish risk by working with professional probate genealogists, can offer solicitors the opportunity to potentially avoid incurring unnecessary costs and diminish the risk of claims from overlooked beneficiaries. With the move towards outcomes focussed regulation instilled by the Legal Services Act, this will also allow for continued flexibility over charging, on the basis that it is right for the practitioner to look at a variety of fee options and to select the arrangement which is most appropriate for the circumstances.
Through close co-operation between ABS’s and professional probate genealogists in will and service provision, consumers can receive a broad benefit. Building such arrangements will also bring benefit to consumers by opening up competition and widening consumer choice, in keeping with the spirit of fairness, flexibility and professionalism set out by the Legal Services Act.
Daniel Curran is managing director, Finders.