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STEP launches code for will preparation

Members will be bound by new ethics from April 

20 January 2014

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A set of will­-writing ethics openly demonstrating the standard of service clients should expect has been launched by the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) in response to lack of regulation.

The society's president Geoffrey Shindler OBE said: "Anyone, regardless of training or experience can set themselves up as a will writer and charge you a fee.

"The code ensures that if you go to a STEP member to draft your will, you can be confident that they are properly educated, operate to the highest professional competencies and to the highest possible ethical standards, both in the way they approach you and in the way they prepare your will."

Members in England and Wales who prepare wills are expected to demonstrate openness, transparency, integrity and competency.

They must avoid conflicts of interest, clearly explain cost implications and manage clients' private information appropriately.

The code takes effect from 1 April.

‘New code is a step in the right direction’, says Sarah Playforth

STEP vociferously argued to the government that will writing should be regulated by statute to protect the public from estate-planning cowboys last year. The government didn’t agree.

The bigwigs at STEP disappeared to lick their wounds and regroup but last week emerged triumphant to unveil the STEP code for will preparation in England and Wales.

The code, described as a ‘gold standard’, sets out a series of ethical principles that STEP members must follow. The code makes barely any mention of technical expertise – after all, members must pass four demanding exams so they really should know what they are doing.

STEP’s code comes about six months after the Law Society announced its own quality mark, the wills and inheritance quality scheme (WIQS). Unlike the mighty WIQS, which is 83 pages long, the STEP code takes up a mere seven pages. But is it any the poorer for that?

WIQS appears to be much more prescriptive than the STEP code, presumably because there is no underlying qualification. For example, the WIQS guidance on mental capacity goes on for two and a half pages and sets out the case law and legal tests in some detail. By contrast, the STEP code has four paragraphs on this subject, simply setting out the professional obligations. The legal knowledge is taken as read and, indeed, forms a key part of the exam syllabus.

This means that the STEP code is much simpler for practitioners to formally adopt. All we really have to do is keep doing what we are doing. Solicitors who wish to sign up to WIQS will have to formally apply, pay a fee and adhere to detailed and strict criteria. The STEP code simply requires members to take notes of instructions – the content and format is left up to the practitioner. By contrast, WIQS not only sets out a checklist of information that must be included but also requires the practice to have a written policy about attendance notes.

Arguably, the shorter document is more client-friendly. If a client is concerned about something their solicitor has or has not done, it will be much easier for them to pinpoint whether and how the code has been breached.

STEP, which has 18,000 members worldwide, already has a long-standing code of professional conduct. This is more general applying to all practice areas. STEP describes this code as a “common central spine” that will be supplemented by further mini-codes relating to specific areas of practice.

Therefore, the will-writing code, which comes into force on 1 April 2014, appears to be the first of several specific codes. Members will be automatically bound by it from this date and it will have the full force of the disciplinary process behind it. This means that anyone who infringes the code could face sanctions.

The new code certainly seems to be a step in the right direction.

Sarah Playforth is a solicitor at Kingsley Napley

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Wills, Trusts & Probate