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WE'VE BEEN CONNED; EXCLUSIVE Dozens of callers contact Mercury to Complain about firm in wills controversy.

Byline: BY JEANETTE OLDHAM

THE Sunday Mercury has been inundated with calls from readers claiming they have been conned out of thousands of pounds by a firm offering to manage their wills.

Last week we reported that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) had banned Solicitors Probate Services, in Malvern, Worcestershire, from dealing with probate work.

The ban meant the arm was unable to act as executors of wills from July 30.

But we revealed the arm was still offering overpriced services for handling clients' probate and had tried to sell a package to a Mercury reporter.

The offer included a pounds 2,100 upfront payment for the arm to be named as executor in the will. They also quoted a pounds 500 fee to store a will for our reporter.

The role of executor involves registering the death, working out how much the assets are worth, paying any inheritance tax due and distributing the proceeds.

SPS Ltd and its sister company SPS (Midland) Ltd were set up just over a year ago by Stephen Share, 57, who qualiaed as a solicitor in 1975.

The SRA suspended his practising certiacate at the same time they banned his companies from dealing with probate work.

SPS Ltd tried to overturn the ban in the high court, but failed.

The arm touts for business in busy shopping centres and supermarkets.

Sources close to the investigation into Stephen Share and the probate arms have revealed a daming catalogue of complaints against them, including:

Prospective customers being signed up by SPS agents being incorrectly told their own relatives could not act as executors in their wills;

Would-be clients feeling pressured into agreeing to Mr Share or his arms acting as executors for them;

Many who paid for probate work having no assets and therefore not needing to make a will at all;and

Others who are council house tenants struggling on limited incomes.

The source said: "Telling people that their own relatives cannot act as executors is untrue and frankly outrageous. It's a way of putting pressure on people to make them feel the only way forward is to let the arm be named as executor."

And top solicitor Howard Burns, wills and probate partner of law arm Lewis Hymanson Small in Manchester, said he was shocked by the fees SPS Ltd was charging.

He said: "The one-off pounds 500 payment for storage seems outrageous and pounds 2,100 upfront appears to be extortionate.

"Most solicitors don't make charges for storing wills and if they do it's because they have acquired a lot of them over a long time and need to have them stored by independent companies - but it's a nominal fee."

Readers who have contacted the Sunday Mercury include:

Karen and Charles Hickey, of North Road, Kings Norton, Birmingham, who told us how the arm signed them up to manage their wills, despite being banned.

Mrs Hickey said: "An SPS agent came to our home and signed us up to paying pounds 2,100 plus pounds 78 for the wills, all upfront. This was on August 14, two weeks after the arm was banned from charging for this type of work.

"We thought everything was ane and felt very satisaed when he left. We had peace of mind for the future for our family.

"Luckily after reading the Sunday Mercury article we phoned our credit card company immediately and they informed us that the payment had already been stopped by them.

"They could not tell us why, but informed us that the transaction had been applied for on the Thursday but it had been stopped.

"The SPS man sold us everything that he shouldn't have according to your report. They agreed to be executors in our wills.

"I got the details for these people from the Grosvenor Shopping Centre in Northaeld about two weeks ago and because it is something that we have been meaning to do for a long time we thought this was an ideal thing for us.

"But I felt physically sick after reading that the arm shouldn't have been offering these services.

"My husband and I are not gullible people but we were sucked in on this one. I can only be glad that this article came out sooner rather than later."

Mr Hickey, a union ofacial for 30 years, said: "The SPS salesman even told us that the arm was expanding so much it was now doing work with the Treasury and because of that had to take the word solicitors out of its title. We now know the true reason is because the only solicitor involved has been suspended from practice."

Pat Taylor, 63, from Yardley, Birmingham, was approached by SPS staff at her local Tesco store in Sheldon. An SPS agent then visited her home on August 6 and signed her up to a pounds 39 will, a pounds 30 children's trust and a will storage agreement of pounds 5 a month.

The agent said SPS Ltd would be named as executor in the will.

She said: "I'm absolutely fuming that this arm charged me for services it's been banned from charging for. It's an absolute disgrace and I feel they've obtained money from me under false pretences. I've only paid out pounds 69 so far and I want it back. If I was younger I'd visit the rm in person and give them a piece of my mind."

Stockport couple Susan and Alan Bocking, aged 55 and 56 respectively, read our story online. They said they signed up with SPS Ltd in January.

Housing trust manager Alan said: "We were talked into paying pounds 78 for two wills - both half price - plus a pounds 150 registration fee, and pounds 2,000 - all of it upfront. The salesman said that he used to be a solicitor but he was retired and doing this now.

"He said if we paid in instalments over two years instead of three years we'd end up paying pounds 2,000 rather than pounds 3,000 so we opted for that. We've been paying pounds 19 a month and now want to get our standing order stopped.

"Our wills were very straightforward. We have no children and each of us left what we have to the other or if we both die, a brother. We have one house and just one bank account between us."

Mrs Bocking, a housewife, added: "We feel it's terrible what they've done. We assumed these prices were normal. We feel this rm preyed on the vulnerable and elderly."

Mark Cunningham, of Brownings Solicitors, which is acting for SPS Ltd and SPS (Midlands) Ltd, last night admitted that that the High Court order obtained by the SRA forbids either rm from acting as executors in wills from July 30.

He said both companies had written to all their existing clients offering them the chance to replace Stephen Share or SPS Ltd or its sister rm as executors in their wills with solicitors from two Malvern practices.

Asked why SPS Ltd and its sister rm had signed up customers for probate work since the High Court ban, he said: "I can only say I have no knowledge of this."

Paul Sharpe, chairman of the Institute of Professional Willwriters (IPW), which is base in Halesowen and campaigns for regulation of will-writers, said: "We have been aware for the last 12 months that SPS Ltd has been charging upfront for probate, something the IPW is not happy about.

"But there has been nothing we have been able to do to stop this. It's been a disaster waiting to happen ever since the company started.

"Not all solicitors and all will-writers are cowboy outts but there are problems with a number of them and people just need to make adequate checks and also be wary of cheap wills."

A spokesman for Worcester trading standards urged SPS customers wishing to make complaints to contact its Consumer Direct helpline on 08454 04 05 06.

He said complaints would be collated for intelligence purposes - the number received would inuence what, if any action, might be taken against the firm.

Complainants wishing to obtain a refund from SPS Ltd are also urged to write a formal letter of complaint to the company and send a copy to the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Anyone wanting advice can also contact Townshends solicitors in Birmingham which has been appointed by the SRA to collect all SPS wills and return them to customers. Townsends can be contacted on 0121 214 1540.

I paid to have my will stored

STEVE Finn and his wife Linda Millard were approached by an SPS agent at a Tesco store eight months ago.

Mr Finn, from Dudley, said: "Linda had badgered me for a while about getting our wills done. And after speaking to the agent we thought it'd be a good idea. The agent seemed very pleasant and we arranged for him to come to our home.

"We paid about pounds 74 for each will and agreed to pay pounds 5 a month for the company to store our wills. I remember that Stephen Share was named as executor in both wills.

"Sadly, Linda passed away suddenly soon afterwards after suffering illness. I then obviously had to get in touch with the company and they handled the probate side of Linda's will.

"There wasn't much for the firm to do because there was no house to sell. There was Linda's pension to sort out. I think I paid about pounds 400 for what they did after she died.

"But someone did tell me that they were surprised I was paying pounds 5 a month to store the will, pounds 60 a year. SPS Ltd has written to me this week. The letter says that the company is doing fine but that it needs to replace the name of Stephen Share as executor in my will with the name of another solicitor.

"But I've thought about it and I'd rather not be associated with the firm and instead I'm going to have my will drawn up by a new firm or solicitor. Like many people, I don't know a great deal about the will-writing process and so I thought paying to have my will stored was what all solicitors did."

CAPTION(S):

WORRIED: Steve Finn has decided to have his will drawn up by a new firm; CONTROVERSIAL: Stephen Share, seen left hiding from our camera
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Aug 24, 2008
Words:1739
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