Regulation of Probate & estate administration services

 In Comment, Gill's Blog

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First Will writing and now probate and estate administration services – the Legal Services Consumer Panel has just recommended to the Legal Services Board that probate and estate administration services should also be regulated.

On 19 March 2012 Elisabeth Davies, Chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, said:

“Dealing with someone’s finances after their death is an important responsibility and takes place at a time when loved ones are grieving. It’s vital to introduce a mechanism to ensure that professional advisors handle things properly, progress the paperwork speedily and charge a fair price for the work.

“Although most people are happy with the service they get, all too often estates end up taking many months or even years to finalise, and costs spiral out of control. Beneficiaries are in a poor bargaining position, often feeling powerless to prevent these problems, especially when lawyers are named as executors in the will. The important safeguard of allowing complaints to the Legal Ombudsman would compensate consumers suffering poor service and also deter malpractice.”

This suggests that the problems are also perceived to lie with solicitors not just the currently unregulated sector given the statement that beneficiaries are in a poor bargaining position “when lawyers are named as executors in the Will”.

Recently, the Trust Discussion Forum has been engaged in an interesting thread about the style, content and frequency of producing estate accounts particularly with regard to assisting in the proper administration of an estate. Unsurprisingly, this has brought out the nugget that many firms outsource the production of estate accounts or employ an accountant in-house for this purpose. Some comment on the lack of usefulness of the proprietary brands of software and most hard core operators use their own Excel spreadsheet varying the template to accommodate the size and type of estate.

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How do you successfully manage an administration to keep a handle on costs and the movement of money without interim sets of accounts? Personal service is something the profession prides itself on but perhaps financial awareness is not our strong suit.

Experienced practitioners are hard to find and retain but the profession needs probate experts who do understand the financial side of estate administration as well as the legal issues. Having worked with accountants over many years it would be sad to effectively hand over estate administration to that profession since there are real legal issues and personal issues involved in dealing with the bereaved and estate administration in which solicitors are the experts. Together solicitors and accountants would be hard to beat as estate administrators.

If beneficiaries are to be able to complain about the administration of an estate to the Legal Ombudsman and estate administration is to be regulated then should we lawyers not be looking at our current personal level of service in estate administration with a critical eye to see how we could re-design the way we deliver our service to ensure that our particular service is responsive, efficient and cost-effective in the eyes of the public? It is human nature to think that what we do is best and needs no change but sadly when looked out by a disinterested outsider there is always something which could be improved. Difficult though it is when busy or broke taking a dispassionate look at your own level of service now before the regulators pounce will probably pay dividends.

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