Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Solicitors - A cautionary tale (Part 1)

Sadly my mother died recently of Alzheimer's. This introduced me to the world of actually fulfilling my role as an Executor. Carrying out the role of Executor isn't some black art and there are many sources of online support which can easily help navigate you through the process. Having said that we have now learnt that the average 'cost of dying' has increased 7.1% over the last year and now amounts to over £7,000.

I may well write a number of posts on my experience of dealing with the legal profession but today I will just deal with a few which address elements that have been at the centre of me purchasing and procurement career since the 70s, namely, Invitations to Treat, Offer and Acceptance, when a contract is in place and value analysis.

I have studied contract law in many forms over the years and thought I had a reasonable grasp of some of the principles, yet I now see the world slightly differently - here's a cautionary tale (Part 1).

My belief was always that there had to be certainty regarding the contract before it is valid. I met with the solicitor, and after that meeting questioned what was actually going to be delivered. I wrote:
Can you help by identifying what all [the firm] plan to do - my brother and I are concerned that this isn't overly complicated given that we're so far below the Inheritance Tax Threshold and we've managed to handle all my mother's affairs up until now. 
I received this response - worth nothing is the lack of clarity on what was to be delivered and how much it may cost:

I have however issued [the firm's] standard first letters when acting in an estate and our Terms of Business, which should clarify what our role is for you. Primarily, I would view our role as keeping you and your brother right in administering the estate of your late mother, as it can be a complex process where all kinds of law overlap (property, succession, tax etc). Often what appear as relatively straightforward matters can be misleading and issues which an Executor may be unaware of could lead to personal liability. By instructing a firm of Solicitors, these risks should be eliminated and the estate can be administered with confidence. We are also particularly familiar with the accounting requirements of the estate, including the production of Executors’ Accounts.
...  You can review the first letter and Terms of Business and revert to me with a decision. In the meantime, I have written to the financial institutions with which your mother held assets or received income, for the necessary details to proceed. 
I am clear that I had very little need for a full suite of solicitor's services as there was an undisputed will and complete clarity of what each of the benefactors had to receive. I sensed a salesman selling services I didn't need and what's more an absence of clarity on how much I could expect to pay. Nevertheless, I spotted an anomaly right away, namely, the Terms of Business were to follow and I could inform the solicitor at that stage whether I wanted to proceed, yet, you will note the solicitor has already "written to the financial institutions". 

What you would consider to be the financial institutions the solicitor referred to? To me it would have been two banks. Yet, I then received, copied to me, a statement from the care home, where my mother had spend the last two and a half years of her life and the remaining amount of fees due, sent to the solicitor - clearly the solicitor had requested this. Now, since my mother had gone into the home, self-funded, I had dealt with all the fees, I had also told the solicitor I had contacted the home and would settle the final accounts. Why had the solicitor taken it upon himself to contact them? I had also informed the solicitor at my initial meeting that I had informed the state and civil service pensions people of my mother's death and there was no need to any further action. (We may return to this later too.)

In parallel, the solicitor wrote to my brother, who shared the role of Executor. In that letter it appeared clear which services I had discussed:
Your brother Gordon expressed a wish to instruct this firm to act on your behalf in completing the necessary Inheritance Tax Return, for executor and application to the court.
Anyway the solicitor's standard terms of business subsequently arrived, even though it could be assumed he had already started to run up costs without my agreement, at the very least letters to the banks and care home. Here's some of what the standard terms of business said:
This letter of instruction and the enclosed Terms of Business document set out the basis on which [the firm] will act in this matter. You should read, sign and return one copy of the Terms of Business document as soon as possible - if you do not return this to us within 21 days however, you will be deemed to have accepted the terms and conditions set out and we will proceed on that basis. 
Our charges are based on a small percentage of the gross value of the estate  (normally 1.5%) plus a charge for the amount of time  involved in administering the estate which we currently charge at £100.00 per hour.
So, to bring Part 1 to a close, we have:
  1. An email from the solicitor which says I can decide to proceed when I receive the terms of business;
  2. A letter to my brother which appears to be explicit as to what I asked discussed with the solicitor regarding scope;
  3. Actions which appear to have been carried out prior to providing the T&Cs;
  4. A complete absence of clarity regarding costs, yet a system which incentivised the solicitor for raising the estimated value of the estate (regardless of the fact that there is no possibility whatsoever that the Inheritance Tax threshold can be reached);
  5. A non-finacial organisation which has received a request for information despite me having made it clear I was already dealing with that organisation and the solicitor has only said they have written to financial institutions.
Given the above, in a contract law exam, I would have said there was no 'meeting of the minds', no contract, no commitment to proceed and no obligation to pay any costs.

What do you think happened next?

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