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Estates legal fees!

View profile for Paul Rothwell
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In November 2017, the Money section of The Times published an article about Maria Hillman and Paul Cutler who found that their father’s £300,000 estate suffered more than £100,000 in legal fees by the firm of solicitors who administered the estate and took five years to complete it.

Mr Cutler and Ms Hillman were shocked that the work the firm of solicitors had carried out was charged out at a fixed hourly rate which they could not challenge. The reason they were unable to challenge the amount charged for dealing with the estate administration was because the solicitor who their father had appointed as the executor of his will, had agreed the charges of his own firm himself at the beginning of the estate administration.

Work was carried out on a premium hourly rate with senior staff used to oversee most tasks, including simple ones.  More then 18 members of staff had charged their time against the estate for work they had carried out.  The article states that the estate comprised two small properties, but £90,000 was charged to administer these assets.

A spokesperson from the firm involved said, ‘We recognise that the fees charged in the administration of this estate were substantial.  They reflect the complexity of the issues encountered in the administration.  We responded to a complaint made by the beneficiaries under our internal complaints process.  Following a review of the file it was concluded that the fees charged were reasonable for the work done and properly charged.’ 

Ms Hillman and Mr Cutler lodged a complaint with the Legal Ombudsman, who told them they did not have the power to ‘override the executor’s discretion and to say whether or not the costs incurred were not appropriate where the executor has decided that they are.’ In effect the solicitor administering the estate was the client and the beneficiaries could not complain to the Legal Ombudsman about the level of fees. 

The Legal Ombudsman told The Times that whilst it can rule where costs are excessive, such complaints are sometimes better dealt with through court action.  Mr Cutler said, ‘It was a surprise to learn that only the solicitor as executor and a client of his own firm could say whether or not the estate had been overcharged.  Clearly it would not be in his interest to do so.  In our case the solicitor also gave his firm a power of attorney over his executorship.  This meant the partners were acting as the executor (client) and the solicitor (for the client) determining the fees that should be charged.’

The article comments that some solicitors and also will writing companies, sell wills specifically to encourage clients to appoint the firm as executors and do so by charging a smaller amount for the preparation of the wills, almost to the extent that they are prepared to make a loss on the preparation of wills.  The article identified concerns that on occasions the appointment of firms and solicitors as executors may give them absolute power over the administration of the estate and the fee that is charged.  Other case studies are given where readers of The Times have complained about will writing companies or solicitors having made significant charges even when mistakes have been made.

Simon Tunnicliffe of the Legal Ombudsman Service said, ‘We would expect [solicitors] to be transparent and provide beneficiaries with costs information, responses to questions within a reasonable time and an explanation of work that needs to be completed.’

What is different about the Martin Tolhurst Solicitors experience?

1. Where possible, the offer of a fixed fee is given before any work is carried out;

2. We may be able to agree the charges for administering your estate, if you appointed the partners in this firm as your executors, at the time of making your will;

3. We have a team of experienced lawyers who understand and deal with estates of varying degrees of complexity on a daily basis;

4. Where the partners in this firm are appointed as executors, beneficiaries will be given detailed cost information before any work is carried out on the estate administration and will be clear about precisely what work will be carried out for the fee;

5. Beneficiaries are able to raise a complaint with us about charges under our complaints procedure;

6. We wish to treat our clients and beneficiaries, fairly and reasonably; and

7. Client care questionnaires and testimonials from our clients show unrivalled client care, together with thanks for our prompt service and empathy.   

If you have been appointed as an executor of an estate or if you have prepared a will and appointed a professional executor but wish to review your will or the appointment of the professional executor, why not meet with us to discuss your circumstances and see if we can help. Call us on 08000271452 or email our new enquires team at