A concerning new report from STEP (Society of Trust & Estate Practitioners) , the global professional association for inheritance advisors, reveals that unqualified and incompetent will writers in the UK are causing serious issues for grieving families. The report surveyed over 300 STEP members about their experiences with problematic wills, trusts, and estate planning in the past year.
The results paint a sobering picture:
- 79% of respondents had encountered wills with errors drafted by unqualified or incompetent will writers. These errors include things like missing signatures, incorrect details, and convoluted provisions that make the will impossible to execute properly.
- 41% had been brought in to deal with full-blown will disputes due to poor drafting. These disputes cause financial and emotional distress at an already grim time for families.
- Over half (55%) had seen cases of dishonesty or incompetence in the administration of trusts. This includes things like trustees disappearing with money or mishandling funds.
- 1 in 3 respondents had seen situations where incompetent advice led to completely unnecessary tax bills, sometimes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds.
In addition to outright errors and disputes, the report highlights troubling trends like will writers having inappropriate financial relationships where they stand to profit from referrals. There are also many cases of "hidden fees" where a low initial quote balloons after the fact.
Perhaps most worrying is that the situation does not seem to be improving at all since STEP's last report in 2011. The authors argue that regulation alone will not fix these systemic issues in what remains a largely unregulated industry. Specialist training and qualifications are equally important.
As a consumer, the key takeaways are:
- Shop around and get multiple quotes rather than going with the first will writer you speak with
- Carefully vet credentials, accreditations, qualifications, and ethics
- Watch for red flags like high-pressure sales tactics and promises that seem too good to be true
- Read the fine print to understand exactly what you'll be paying and who stands to profit
No one wants their legacy distorted or family members put through unnecessary grief due to an incompetent or unscrupulous will writer. Taking the time to find an experienced professional pays off in the long run.
The Importance of Experience
The report makes a compelling case that regulation and oversight alone cannot substitute for the insights gained from years of specialization.
Estate planning is an enormously complex field that requires one to anticipate how assets will be treated years or even decades down the line. Laws, tax codes, property values, and family dynamics inevitably shift over time in ways no one can fully predict. An experienced practitioner, however, has the benefit of seeing how various estate plans and provisions have actually held up over their career.
For example, an advisor who has been active for 20+ years will have seen firsthand the consequences when a will is vaguely worded or fails to account for contingencies. They will have confronted tricky scenarios dealing with blended families, disputing beneficiaries, properties spanning international borders, and assets ranging from digital currencies to farmland.
Over time, they develop an intuition for the kinds of provisions and structures that work well versus those likely to cause issues down the road. Equally important is understanding how to tailor an estate plan to each client's unique situation and priorities. This degree of wisdom and judgement only comes from years in practice.
So, while formal regulation and training matter, there is no substitute for an experienced practitioner who has spent their career immersed in the intricate realities families face when planning legacies for generations to come. Their expertise and foresight can make all the difference.
A Global Issue
The issues highlighted in STEP's report are not unique to the UK. The US faces similar consumer risks around incompetent or dubious online will writing services, DIY estate planning documents, and unqualified individuals dabbling in an incredibly complex field.
High profile cases regularly appear of estates gone awry due to novice errors like ambiguous beneficiary designations, improper asset titling, or failing to account for tax liabilities. In some cases, families lose over half the value of an estate that would have been protected with proper planning from a seasoned professional. Just as you wouldn't attempt brain surgery armed with a YouTube tutorial, vital decisions around legacy and succession planning are ill-suited for inexperienced or thinly trained practitioners.
And while regulation differences exist between countries, the intrinsic complexity of the work means serious oversights can happen regardless. That's why due diligence around qualifications, expertise, ethics, and transparent pricing is vital whether dealing with an advisor in the UK, North America, or elsewhere globally. Shortchanging this process frequently leads to disastrous and heartbreaking consequences families struggle with for years.
- In California, the heirs of Roman Blum fought over control of his $40 million estate for years after his 2015 death. Critically, Blum's biggest mistake was signing a basic estate planning document without expert counsel to align it with his wishes. The fallout fractured his family.
- Celebrity hairdresser Oribe Canales passed away in 2018, leaving behind a $20 million fortune. However, his will, drafted without thorough estate planning guidance, authorized one beneficiary to invest the inheritance in "risky startups." This sparked a massive court battle between the heirs.
- Even judges are not immune. Texas appeals court judge Bill Burke died in 2017 after attempting to draft his own estate plan to save money. Legal challenges quickly arose after people realized the documents completely failed to distribute his multimillion-dollar ranches and assets as intended.
- Michael Jackson's estate exploded into a sprawling legal saga after his unexpected 2009 death exposed slapdash revisions to key documents like his trust. A professionally overseen estate plan could have eased confusion and prevented years of public court fights between beneficiaries and heirs over interpreting unclear instructions.
In all these cases, either DIY planning documents or inexpert advisors failed to match the technical complexity these seven, eight, and nine-figure estates required. Simple mistakes around tax planning, beneficiary terminology, contingency provisions, and more caused immense financial and emotional damage for those left behind. It illustrates the deceptive appeal yet disastrous potential of skimping on qualified estate planning guidance.
Download report: https://www.step.org/research-reports/wills-and-trusts