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Probate: another string to your bow

2 February 2021: Sole practitioner Vanessa Longley aims to increase her wills and probate workload to 70% of her revenue. What is driving this decision, and might it be a mindset other practitioners could adopt?

Longley Consulting Ltd offers typical tax planning and accountancy services. What is unusual is the departure Longley took from the traditional small practitioner route four years ago when she undertook the probate exams. “I wanted a change,” she says, adding that personal experience took her on her first probate journey. “It came down to helping others and I enjoyed that.”

She says she is at her most useful when she unburdens others, especially when they are grieving and particularly at this difficult time when the pandemic is creating so much health uncertainty.

“The job can be a bit emotional at times,” she says. “I can be particularly effective when people just want the whole process of probate taken off their hands and, if they can hand over everything to me, I can relieve them of a lot of worry.”

Longley offers different levels of service that include writing wills, acting as executor, and undertaking the probate process right through to the distribution of assets and winding up the estate. This often involves liaising with solicitors and estate agents.

She says: “some clients prefer the certainty of fixed or capped fees. However, it’s very hard to offer this as it is difficult to predict what work will be needed. I generally bill on an hourly basis as this proves fairer for both parties.” 

If there are any signs that a will might be contested, a solicitor will be brought into the mix, she adds. Even the possibility of a contested will has to be discussed with clients upfront – for example where a family member is being excluded as a beneficiary under a will. Longley notes this is becoming a more frequent occurrence and must always be addressed early on.

What is also remarkable is that Longley has noticed many more people are making a will for the first time in their 50s and older – presumably prompted by COVID. “People tend to put off will-making for as long as possible,” she says. “It is not a nice process, but it is necessary.”

She has seen first-hand the consequences of intestacy, especially where second marriages and stepchildren are concerned. “I am often asked: what is fair? Or I am asked: what is normal? People battle with those concepts.” Longley is also well-versed in trust planning – interests in possession and discretionary trusts – especially where children and children with special needs are concerned.

So what skills are ideal for a practitioner in this space? Clearly, communication and empathy are intrinsic to delivering a strong service, but inheritance tax, an understanding of trusts and some legal knowledge can only help too.

“Probate is a really good string to add to your bow,” says Longley. “It provides a good revenue stream and uses a whole different skillset that plays well to an accountant’s strengths: planning, data and handling numbers.”

The benefits of probate accreditation | ICAEW