Why you must make sure your will is accessible

Do you know where your will is? Even more importantly, do the people who will act as your executors, in the event of your death, know where your will is stored?

The recent discovery at Lloyds Banking Group that 9,000 wills had been left in storage and not passed on to customers serves as a stark, cautionary tale. The bank is now desperately trying to match envelopes with the relevant families.

The wills were kept in the bank’s ‘Safe Custody’ service – an ironic name given that the custody actually proved too safe, with no one knowing about the wills’ existence. The service closed to new customers in 2011.

The error means that some executors may have administered a deceased’s estate using what turned out to be the wrong will, unaware that the right one was stored at Lloyds. As a result, some families are having to re-examine old bequests years after they were thought to have been settled.

Not only will this have caused great inconvenience, it will also have been incredibly distressing for those involved.

Michael Culver, chairman of Solicitors for the Elderly, commented that the processing failure could lead to estates being wrongly distributed, contentious probate claims, negligence claims against executors and administrators, issues with tax payments and, ultimately, the last wishes of the deceased not being honoured.

The bank, however, has said that it was only in a small percentage of cases that they did not trace the will when a customer died. According to their spokesperson, 90 per cent of the newly discovered wills had already been superseded by a later will or there were copies available elsewhere. In some cases, the estates were declared intestate but had been distributed in line with the deceased’s wishes anyway.

What action can be taken? Families affected should make a complaint to the Financial Ombudsman and a counter claim against Lloyds directly. Compensation will be offered, including legal costs, and LLoyds have promised that it won’t claw back assets given to the wrong people.

As for the future, what lessons can be learnt? It is recommended to always register a will. This case illustrates that it is often better to use a solicitor, who will be specialised in making and storing wills, rather than a high street bank. You can also register a will with the Probate Service for a one-off fee of £20.

The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) advises against safety deposit boxes for wills as it means the executor cannot get access until they get probate and this cannot be granted without a will, so it becomes a bit of a Catch 22 situation.

If you do have a will stored in a safety deposit box, consider moving it elsewhere to ensure it is accessible. Make sure its whereabouts is known to your executors. It may not be something you or your family want to think about right now but it could save a lot of stress and worry at a difficult time later.