Solicitors ‘on the money’ in probate dealings as accountants fall short

The issue of who is best professionally equipped to deal with probate has proved contentious. Accountants have largely been recommended as the best to deliver the uncontested probate, as previously covered by Todays Wills and Probate here. However, the benefits of using a solicitor are also prominent and have been raised in response.

Sally Harlow, a solicitor at Bootle Hatfield is a believer in the benefits of favouring lawyers over accountants where probate is concerned. The specialist in probate law highlighted the numerous reasons why lawyers may be best equipped to deal with even the simplest of estates.

Contrary to popular belief, uncontested probate may not be as simple as it may appear. Lawyers are at the centre of the often-ongoing process that will require continual provision of documentation. Harlow argues: An uncontested probate might at first glance seem quite straightforward.  The executors value and gather in the assets of the deceased, settle their liabilities, pay any inheritance tax that is due, and then distribute the estate.  But that is not always the case.

Complexities may be the caused by a variety of matters, which trusts are a common example of. The fact that some form of trust will often be included in an estate is further highlighted by Harlow

Many estates, even those with modest value, will often include some form of trust.  This might be because of a second marriage, with assets held in trust for the children of the first marriage whilst allowing the second spouse to use those assets during their lifetime.”

A nil rate band discretionary trust may also be included in many wills. These were often used prior to transferable nil rate bands and appointments from the trusts are usually required within the probate work. In dealing with these trusts, the necessary legal documentation will be prepared by the solicitor, who may also act for the trustees of the will should they need continuing assistance with the trusts following estate administration. 

 Harlow also mentions the potential tension which may arise where probate is concerned. 

A straightforward uncontested probate might also contain areas of tension and potential conflict between beneficiaries, often in relation to unexpected items such as chattels.  A solicitor is often useful in such cases, being able to advise on the options available to the beneficiaries and ways to prevent the potential conflict from escalating.” 

In order to make additional provision, reduce inheritance tax or clear up uncertainty, beneficiaries may also wish to alter a will. A solicitor would need to prepare the relevant documentation in order to put these changes into effect.

Due to their frequent use of the legal framework governing such matters as well as the documentation required, solicitors are usually incredibly aware of the numerous problems which could arise.

Probate solicitors for many years have also drawn up estate accounts. Due to the relevant software being readily available, the process has been made a lot simpler, even for the most complex of estates.

Harlow further acknowledges that along with making the process easier, technology improvements have also caused the cost of probate to fall. 

There are still some law firms that charge for probate work based on a percentage of the estate, but, like accountants, most will charge an hourly rate or even a fixed fee.  Executors should discuss with their solicitor, or accountant, at the outset how they intend to charge, and ask for a detailed fee proposal.

Accountants may not be completely excluded from all probate dealings a solicitor is involved in however; their expertise can often be of great use. Solicitors may request their accountant to prepare or review estate tax returns or final lifetime tax returns should financial matters be complex.  

Harlow concludes by mentioning that the biggest threat to probate solicitors, may not actually be posed by accountants, but from the rise of alternative providers, such as Co-Op Legal Services.  They are often well-resourced, have a national brand presence, operate on fee arrangements, and have made a significant impact on certain sections of the probate market. 

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