Legacies: working together to fulfil final wishes

Chris Millward, Chief Executive of the Institute of Legacy Management, highlights the need for positive working relationships between charity legacy teams and probate professionals.

Last summer’s spate of negative press coverage around charities, particularly linked to fundraising practices, has had a notable effect on the sector. On one hand, this increased scrutiny is positive, in that it brings to light cases of bad practice and has led to significant changes, through the work of the Etherington review and the establishment of the new fundraising regulator, due to launch fully by the end of the summer.

On the other hand, the negative attention tars many with the same brush, and risks overlooking much of what is good within the charity sector. In an nfpSynergy survey in October 2015, less than half of people (48%) said they trusted charities, and charities fell from 8th to 12th place in just 6 months in the list of trusted public institutions – the lowest level in four years. Although full income figures for 2015 are not yet available, it is logical to assume that reduced trust may also result in reduced charitable donations, and this may well, over time, translate into fewer legacy gifts left in wills. Given that legacy income represents over £2.4bn for the charitable sector each year, and many charities rely on it for their survival, this poses a real threat to vital services.

As well as the public issues, there are also suggestions that trust between charities and those involved in the execution of wills – particularly solicitors – may be weakening. Anecdotally, at least, some legacy professionals within charities have expressed concern over whether their relationships with probate professionals are working as well as they might. Whether these suggestions are evidenced in fact, or are simply perceived, we need to take them seriously. Any strain on these crucial working relationships could have significant implications for the shared responsibility to ensure that these gifts – a final expression of an individual’s personal passions – are fulfilled.

This begs the question, what might be the cause of a real, or perceived, tension between these professions, both of whom, after all, are experts in their own fields, and share a common goal in fulfilling a person’s final wishes?

Conversations with our members have suggested that sometimes it comes down to a simple lack of understanding. For example, many solicitors aren’t aware of much of the reporting charity legacy professionals are legally required to complete, so when a legacy officer asks the solicitor for certain information this can, if not explained appropriately, be misconstrued as unnecessary interference, or a questioning of the solicitor’s abilities. And perhaps legacy professionals aren’t always understanding enough about the other side either. While I’m a champion for our sector, I’m certainly not blind to the fact that there are instances of bad practice. For example, generic communication methods, lacking in the personalisation and understanding that so many working in our field pride themselves upon, can be incredibly damaging. Solicitors, responsible for their client’s estate and working directly with bereaved relatives can, understandably, see this as unprofessional and inappropriate, as can the clients. However, the vast majority of legacy professionals strive to attain the highest of standards, and are acutely aware of the sensitive circumstances within which they work, treading a careful line in undertaking their duties on behalf of their Trustees whilst keeping within the stringent legal framework which governs our profession. Nevertheless, for the sake of those generously leaving gifts to charities, we need to ensure that legacy professionals are consistently adopting best practice, and striking the correct balance across all their responsibilities.

In order to do the very best for donors, the ILM is committed to preserving and improving the crucial working relationships at every stage of the legacy progress, fostering collaboration and understanding by acting, in many ways, as a bridge between those inside the charities and the probate professionals on the outside.

This bridge has a number of forms. Individuals or organisations involved in the sector, from legacy professionals to solicitors and professional will-writers, are encouraged to become members or corporate partners of the Institute, allowing access to a whole host of resources and an active, engaged community with numerous opportunities for communication and collaboration. Members and corporate partners can submit relevant articles and updates to the Members Area of our website, sharing their expertise and latest insights to assist in raising understanding and informing best practice. And the database of charity legacy professionals’ contact details and member forums mean that getting in touch with the right person is a simple and efficient process.

The ILM also offers a number of opportunities for furthering understanding and continuing professional development through training courses and conferences. As well as being able to attend these events, members and corporate partners can speak at and sponsor sessions, or even deliver their own courses.

I believe it’s this sort of direct communication, open discussion and shared learning that provides the antidote to any real or perceived breakdown in trust between these professional groups, and I look forward to welcoming more into our fold over the coming months and years, to further our shared goals – to ensure that every donor’s charitable legacy achieves its greatest potential.

Today's Wills and Probate