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Threat that is keeping our solicitors busy

by
13 November 2020

The pandemic has spurred greater numbers to consider leaving their affairs in good order. Paul Wilkinson finds out more

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MOUNTING infection rates and a rising number of deaths during the pandemic have brought the prospect of mortality to the forefront of many minds. One result has been a significant spike in the number of people writing a will and sorting out their personal estates.

The Law Society has reported a 30-per-cent rise among its members’ clients, and demand for the services of the online will-writing company Farewill increased more than five-fold between March and September, compared with the same time last year.

Perhaps contrary to popular perception, the upsurge in activity has not been limited to the older generation. “The trend cuts across different age groups,” Farewill’s chief executive, Dan Garrett, said. He reported a 12-fold increase in the number of under-35s writing their will at the height of the first wave in April.

“Although this has slowed down since the height of the outbreak, even with millennials we’re still seeing a big increase compared with last year: up 146 per cent between July and September 2020.

“Clearly, we’re all reflecting on our mortality more since the pandemic. And, while confronting death and planning for it is difficult, it’s also really sensible. It makes it much easier for the people who care about you further down the line.”

 

THE effect of the pandemic was brought home one day in late April to Kieran Bowe, a partner in the law firm Russell Cooke & Co., in Kingston, south-west London. “By 11 a.m., I had taken my third call from a relative of a person who had died. I will never forget that day for the rest of my life. Thankfully, that has not happened again, and we have since returned to what normal business should look like; however, the second wave is building.”

The Government realised the importance of will-writing early in the pandemic, by defining solicitors as key workers, but lockdown has posed its own problems with restrictions on personal contact indoors. While much preparatory work can be done on the phone or on Zoom, the 1837 Wills Act, which still governs the process, stipulates that, to be legally valid, the document must be signed in the presence of two witnesses “in wet ink”.

Mr Bowe recalls one case where a 90-year-old client signed her will on a park bench beside the Thames. Elsewhere, car bonnets in office car parks have become temporary desks, and some signings have even involved witnesses’ peering in at closed windows to watch as the signature is set down, as papers pass back and forth through the letterbox, accompanied by much sanitiser.

Alert to the problem, the Government has now introduced temporary legislation allowing the process to be witnessed by video.

During the pandemic, Mr Bowe’s firm has undertaken increased amounts of related work, on estate-planning and creating powers of attorney, allowing someone to run the affairs of a person too ill to manage alone.

“There are not only mortality issues, but the new concerns about long Covid, and the consequences of not seeking medical help with other conditions when the NHS was under great pressure,” he said.

“People are more appreciative, now, that we are potentially more vulnerable — not just to death, but that they might be ill for a long time. They want to ensure that they have done everything they can for their family, and put them in a good position to look after them.

“We have also seen an increase in guardianship: people making sure the right arrangements are in place to ensure their children are looked after well, and that the right people are looking after them.”

 

ONE emerging trend is a rise in bequests beyond the family to favourite organisations, from churches to sports or community groups, and charities. Previously, Farewill arranged about £4 million a month of charity bequests. That figure dropped slightly to £3.5 million at the onset of the pandemic, in February, but in April, as Covid cases peaked, it rose to more than £35 million.

Part of that surge was because of the general spike in will-writing, but more people are including a gift than before, and the value of the gifts is going up: welcome news for organisations that have seen other fund-raising streams, particularly from events, dwindle in the past few months. Farewill has found that the most popular causes are health, animals, international aid, and religion.

“People are looking down the line,” Mr Bowe said. “They know there are some hard times ahead, and they know that they are in a fortunate position, and are considering how their wealth can do more for their local community. They are becoming more conscious of the ethics of what they are trying to achieve.”

Gary Rycroft, a partner in the Lancashire law firm Joseph A. Jones & Co., said: “We don’t tell people what they should put in their wills, but I am very keen on the idea that solicitors should not just be scribes. We should bring to the table our professional experience and add value. That is where we have a role; we have seen and heard all the scenarios before, and have experience of when things have not gone right.

“Some people come with firm ideas of what they want to do, but others have no idea. Those with firm ideas are sometimes the ones you need to listen to very carefully, and, in a very professional way, guide them away from ideas which might not actually be best for them.

“People are sometimes reluctant to put forward their own ideas; so, as part of the wider conversation, I always ask: ‘Are there organisations, charities, sports clubs, churches, and so on that you were connected with in your life, that you want to remember in your will?’ It gives people permission to talk about it.

“Over the 25 years that I have been a solicitor, I have seen an increase in people who want to think about the places and the organisations that mean more to them. The baby-boomer generation are used to being involved in organisations and making a difference in society; they are wealthier than people once were. So it’s important to get the message across that you can still benefit your family as well as charities; there is enough to go round for everyone.”



IN 2018, the Church of England’s parish legacy income was £60 million, from 4500 bequests. “During lockdown, the vast majority of charities immediately stopped all fund-raising communications, including legacy promotion,” the C of E’s deputy national giving adviser, Eleanor Stead, said. “Conversely, the will-writing sector experienced a surge in demand.”

After the end of the first lockdown, many charities restarted fund-raising, including legacy marketing and free will-writing promotions. “Whilst it is too early to see the impact of Covid-19 on legacy giving to charities and churches, the Church of England continues to encourage and support parishes with legacy giving as a part of good Christian stewardship,” she said.

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The C of E has created “The Generosity Week” as a response to the fall in church income during the pandemic, to encourage a generous culture in churches, so that churches’ ministry can grow for generations to come. Its Giving Team has produced a new series of resources — covering an octave, from one Sunday to the next — to encourage people to live generously. A core part of the material is eight daily podcast reflections for churches to encourage individuals to listen to.

These podcasts explore generosity in the Bible through a verse of scripture, followed by a reflection from a range of contributors, including the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin; the Bishop of Loughborough, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani; the Revd Harry Steele; Rachel Mander, of Hope for the Future; Phil and Dani Knox; the Revd Paul Thomas; Hazel Lynch; and Robin Peake.

The C of E’s National Adviser on Giving and Income Generation, Jonathan de Bernhardt Wood, said: “Living a generous life is one of the ways we live out our Christian faith. We have seen remarkable generosity and commitment from our church members throughout the pandemic. We hope ‘The Generosity Week’ will inspire and encourage people to grow in generosity, so we can grow our ministry to the communities we serve.”

The Church of England has adopted a National Giving Strategy for 2020-25 that will invest in different ways to encourage giving to its churches. This includes expanding advice and guidance for parishes, encouraging digital giving, and providing training for clergy and laity.


BEFORE the recent upsurge, surveys indicated that about half the population had not written a will — something that could cause untold problems for the family of the deceased. The average amount lost when someone dies without a will is almost £10,000, according to Farewill, and legal restrictions could prevent spouses’ receiving the entitlement that they expect. Also, the surviving partner of couples who are not married could miss out completely.

“It’s making sure that the wrong things don’t happen,” Mr Rycroft said, “and dealing with the more complicated family structures that people seem to have these days.”

He believes that there are two primary reasons why everyone should write a will: the first is so that its author can control who shares their estate, rather than those defined by the intestacy rules. The second — and to him the most important — is that it shows you care.

“It would probably take only an hour of your time — not really much to demonstrate to the people you leave behind that you thought well enough of them to think things through. It literally is your ‘legacy’.”

 

C of E Generosity Week podcasts: parishresources.org.uk/generosity-week

 

Help towards making a will

  • WillAid runs every November, when participating solicitors waive their fee for writing a basic will, and instead a donation is made to one of nine charities.
    willaid.org.uk
  • Free Wills Month works on behalf of four charities to offer people aged 55+ the opportunity to have their simple wills written or updated, free of charge, by using participating solicitors. A new campaign starts in March 2021.
    freewillsmonth.org.uk
  • The Law Society’s guide to making a will provides links to solicitors, rules of intestacy, and the Government’s Probate Service.
    lawsociety.org.uk
  • The Government provides guidance on making a will, with links to information on Inheritance Tax, and leaving a gift to charity.
    gov.uk/make-will

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