Case studies

Mr A – Costs

Mr A’s mother passed away following a short illness leaving him as the named executor and beneficiary to her estate. Mr A employed a legal firm to help him administer his duties to ensure it was dealt with efficiently.

Unfortunately, the process of administering the estate was mired with problems from the start. Some three years after initiating the process he was still waiting for things to be finalised. The firm had been holding onto £150,000 worth of funds left in Mr A’s mother’s will, for no apparent good reason.

In addition the firm seemed to be racking up unforeseen costs, stating a change in personnel and ‘additional advice’ as reasons. When Mr A complained and asked for an indication of the final bill, he was told that some £7,500 would be deducted from the estate in fees.

Mr A decided enough was enough and brought his complaint to the Ombudsman.

When an investigator looked at the complaint, it was clear that the firm had unnecessarily delayed proceedings and that Mr A had suffered a loss of interest on the sum left to him in the will.

We managed to resolve the complaint without referring the matter to an ombudsman by getting the firm to: waive some of its costs; refund £3,000 in lost interest; conclude the administration without charge; and finally, to give all original documents back to the complainant.

Mr A was happy with the resolution.

Mr B – Costs

When Mr B’s estranged father passed away he believed he had died intestate, and therefore that the estate would naturally go to him. However, shortly after his father died, a will was discovered bequeathing everything to a charity.

Mr B sought out a lawyer for information about the intestacy rules, and then for advice about gaining access to the property to gather some family history. The lawyer advised him to challenge the will under the Inheritance Provision for Family and Dependents Act 1975.

Unfortunately, throughout the case the lawyer failed to give Mr B any indication of their costs. They also gave him incorrect information in relation to the amount of money he would receive once the firm deducted their profit costs, should he be successful in acquiring some inheritance.

He complained to the lawyer that this was unfair – particularly as he had made the lawyer aware he had only limited funds to pay for their services when he first made enquiries. The lawyer was unhelpful and failed to take the complaint seriously.

Eventually Mr B brought his complaint to the Ombudsman. When we investigated we found that the firm had failed to provide sufficient updates about costs. We ordered the firm to reduce its fees by £1300 and to pay Mr B £400 for the distress and inconvenience they had caused him.

Mr C – Delay

Mr C was the son of a beneficiary (his mother) named along with eight others due inheritance following the death of a relative. The deceased gentleman had left an estate worth around £600,000, which included a property, to be split between the beneficiaries according to a will he had drafted by a lawyer before he passed away.

The lawyer who prepared the will was also the named executor, which meant that he had overall responsibility for distributing assets. However, the lawyer did not take steps to administer the estate. Instead, he cited disputes between beneficiaries and third parties excluded from the will as a reason not to take any action. Such was the delay that six years later nothing had happened. To make matters worse, the named beneficiaries were elderly and in poor health; Mr C was concerned that they might pass away without receiving a penny.

Mr C had made numerous complaints to the lawyer on behalf of his mother in a bid to get things moving. Mr C and the beneficiaries he was representing weren’t just angry that the assets hadn’t been distributed; the property left behind had also been allowed to fall into disrepair, impacting on its re-sale value and leading to complaints from neighbours. Finally, because of a lack of action from the lawyer Mr C brought his complaint to the Legal Ombudsman.

When we investigated we found that the reasons given for the delay were insufficient. The lawyer’s approached had caused serious delay and he did not seem to have taken any steps to try and resolve the dispute. An ombudsman ordered the lawyer to seek a barrister’s opinion on how to execute the will immediately and to pay for any costs incurred for seeking legal advice. If he was still unable to execute the will following this, the lawyer was to refer the matter to court and pay associated costs.

Finally, he was ordered to pay £1800 compensation for the distress and inconvenience he had caused by his service delays.

Ms D – Delay

Ms D instructed a lawyer to help draft her will. She was terminally ill with cancer and the firm were therefore instructed on the basis that it could complete the work quickly.

Unfortunately, despite knowing of Ms D’s circumstances and agreeing to provide a speedy service, the firm failed to deliver the will in a reasonable time frame. In addition, the firm issued draft versions of the will containing significant errors – some of which had already been pointed out in previous drafts. As things progressed the firm also refused to draft the will according to Ms D’s specific requirements. This ultimately resulted in the relationship breaking down and the agreement being terminated.

Ms D complained to the firm asking them to improve procedures to prevent the same thing happening to somebody else, particularly when they need the matter to be dealt with in a timely manner. She also wanted compensation for the unnecessary upset and inconvenience they had caused her at a difficult time in her life.

The firm responded to Ms D but she was unhappy with the way they handled the complaint. Finally, she brought the complaint to the Legal Ombudsman.

When we investigated we found that there had been unnecessary delays in drafting the will. The firm had caused considerable upset and emotional distress to Ms D and her family. Additionally, Ms D and her brother incurred significant travelling expenses to instruct a new solicitor (who managed to complete the work in 24 hours).

As a result, we advised that the firm should apologise and pay Ms D £500 compensation.

Miss E – Delay/ poor quality will

Miss E felt the time was right to prepare a will and promptly instructed a legal firm to help her draft it.

She found the firm using a search engine and settled on them after reading their website which promised a quick, efficient service. However, she soon started to experience problems contrary to what the marketing spiel told her to expect.

Miss E claimed that the firm had: delayed in drafting her will; failed to keep her informed about progress; continued to work on matters and request information after she had told them that she wanted to suspend work (they only stopped contacting her after she had paid some of their fees); and drafted a will that contained errors in it.

Miss E complained to the firm on a number of occasions but it failed to give her the courtesy of a response. She then brought her complaint to the Ombudsman.

We found that the firm had delayed drafting the will and also delayed in responding to Miss E’s queries. They sent numerous drafts of the will, often containing errors. They also failed to address Miss E’s complaint despite her chasing for a response.

An investigator suggested to both Miss E and the firm that a fair and reasonable remedy to her complaint would be compensation of £250, with any outstanding costs to be deducted from this amount. The firm agreed and Miss F also accepted this as a fair resolution.

Mr F – Failure to follow instructions

Mr F’s mother sadly passed away. In her will, she had left shares which were to be sold with the profits going to her estate. Responsibility for selling the shares lay with a legal firm who were instructed to act by the executors, Mr F and his sister. In principle this would be a relatively straight forward process for a firm of experienced probate lawyers.

However, it took them three years to execute the will and to distribute the estate.

Eventually, the firm paid the estate £6,000, which it claimed were the dividends of the share sale.

But Mr F was sceptical about whether the shares had in fact been sold. When he questioned the firm and asked for a receipt of the sale, it was unable to meet his request. Mr F then escalated his complaint to the Legal Ombudsman.

When we investigated we found that the firm had not even sold the shares, but had instead paid the estate using their own funds. They then tried to justify this by stating that they had calculated what the shares would have been worth. However, when an investigator scrutinised the figures, it became apparent that they had miscalculated and underpaid Mr F by some £4,000.

The investigator agreed a way of resolving the issue mutually by getting the firm to: pay Mr F £1,000 for distress and inconvenience; reimburse their costs; and finally, provide him with the share certificates so he could sell the shares. Although the firm claimed it was an honest mistake we reported them to their regulator for potential misconduct.

Mr G – Out of jurisdiction

Mr G, an elderly gentleman, approached a firm of will writers to draw up a will and paid them nearly £2,000 to do the work.

After a period of time Mr G had not received any indication that the will had been drafted so he contacted the firm to complain. However, the firm failed to answer his calls. It soon became clear that they had no intention of doing the work or returning his money.

Mr G discovered that the firm had closed down and contacted the Society of Will Writers for help. They suggested he bring his complaint to the Legal Ombudsman.

When we investigated we found that the firm fell outside our jurisdiction.

Will writing is not a reserved activity and so is not covered by the Legal Services Act 2007. A solicitor, who would be an authorised person under the Act, was a partner in the firm but because there was no evidence to show that he had been involved in Mr G’s work (chiefly because no work had been done) we were unable to investigate the complaint.

The Legal Ombudsman received a number of cases about the firm – some of which we had investigated because there was evidence of the solicitor’s direct involvement.