Making or not making a will, can have dramatic consequences. The recent dispute over the will of actress Jill Bennett may be considered fortunate timing as ‘Make a Will Week’ looms. In this case one solicitors firm denied liability for negligence in not having her will executed.
The Bennett case follows an action – White v Jones – which went to the House of Lords earlier this year. In this it was held that the solicitors had negligently delayed the preparation of a will by a father who, having disinherited his two daughters in a previous will, later relented and instructed his solicitors to draw up a new one which left them both legacies. The father died before the new will was ready.
This ruling may encourage solicitors to prepare wills more quickly but also illustrates the many problems they face when drawing them up.
Another recent dispute, which may end up in the High Court, resulted from a sister challenging her deceased brother’s will on the basis that her brother was not of sound mind when he made it.
She claims that her brother was suffering from the insane delusion that she was careless and useless with money, had led an extravagant lifestyle, was ignorant of money matters and was on the road to ruin aided by “rapacious gigolos”.
Lawyers, testators and beneficiaries are not alone in having problems with wills.
One solicitor tells the tale of telephoning a well-known high street retailer several years ago to advise that its standard will forms omitted to mention that a beneficiary or legatee should not sign a will as a witness.
The lawyer involved also says that it may only be coincidence that soon afterwards all of the forms were withdrawn and later appeared with the relevant provision and explanation.
According to Sue Stapeley, head of the press and parliamentary unit at the Law Society, under whose auspices the ‘Make a Will Week’ scheme was launched five years ago, the aim of the campaign is to increase public awareness of the importance of having a properly and professionally-prepared will drawn up, rather than a do-it-yourself one.
Statistics show that only one in three adults has a proper will.
The Law Society is aware that the public may think that the main intention behind ‘Make a Will Week’ is to drum up business for law firms.
It counters this by saying that if it wanted to make more work for solicitors, it would organise a ‘Don’t Make a Will with a Solicitor Week’ as there is “more money to be earned in sorting out the problems caused by inadequate home-made wills than from the modest charges raised by lawyers for preparing a properly-drawn will”.
This is the first year that the campaign has been sponsored by and run in conjunction with BBC Radio 2. Public awareness will also be raised by Andrew Phillips, partner at Bates Wells & Braithwaite, who will be plugging the campaign on Jimmy Young’s Radio 2 programme.
As a result of the station’s backing, there will also be information leaflets available in Welsh, Urdu and Hindi.
Phillips considers that, apart from raising more than £1 million for charity last year, it is also one of the few occasions when there is positive PR for the solicitor.
He adds that the campaign is timely considering the recent claims that charities have been losing out as the country is gripped by gambling fever. Legacies by individuals are now becoming an increasing and vital part of receipts by charities.
Many solicitors acknowledge that the campaign is much more useful for the high street and suburban firms, which are more likely to have a private client walk in off the street and make a will.
But some solicitors will be offering their services during the week at special rates, with home visits and late night or Saturday opening.
Phillips adds that the initiative “supports your local lawyer, and also allows lawyers to support charities. It is a win-win scheme.”