Private client practitioners are skilled at dealing with the legal side of probate, but the emotional side can sometimes be neglected. Richard Roberts explains how he guides his clients through the increasingly complex probate process.
My late senior partner John Gedye always used to give one instruction when we were notified that a client had died and the family wanted to see us: ‘Go and see them at home, and take a clean white handkerchief.’ As private client practitioners, we know how to deal with the legal aspects of a death, but how many of us give enough attention to dealing with the emotional aspects?
The bereaved experience a whole range of emotions: anxiety, worry, fear, anger, numbness. They also frequently experience insomnia, a lack of concentration, and an intermittent failure in judgement. How can we help them as we guide them through the increasingly complex set of requirements laid down by HM Revenue & Customs and financial institutions, on top of the often conflicting claims of family members and other interested parties?
The initial contact
The phone call
If a large proportion of your work is in dealing with the bereaved, then your reception staff will be quite used to taking initial telephone calls from family members to advise of a death. It is worth taking time to train your reception staff, or indeed allocate a specific team member to deal with these initial enquiries. They can be very time-consuming and require a great deal of tact and compassion. Very often, the caller will be distressed and will want reassurance as to what urgent matters, if any, they should be attending to. We were once fortunate enough to have a receptionist whose previous role had been a similar post in a hospice, and the compassion she showed was instinctive.
The first meeting
In an ideal world, I would always visit the recently bereaved in their own home, because they will feel more comfortable, and if their emotions take over, they will certainly feel more at ease being able to go to their own bedroom, bathroom or even kitchen, just to make a cup of tea. Unfortunately, a home visit is not always possible, so if you are inviting the family into the office, there are some simple ways to make it a more positive experience.
- Make sure that the family know exactly where the office is located and the easiest place to park the car. Alternatively, arrange for an elderly client to be dropped off at the office door.
- If they are to arrive by public transport, make directions simple or even send a member of staff to meet them. It is easy to forget that at times of bereavement, people’s concentration is not what it was, and help will be appreciated.
- If it is a visit by appointment, forewarn your reception staff and arrange for somebody to take the family directly to the interview room.
- Ensure that the room is welcoming. Include refreshments and a discreet – but accessible – box of tissues. I always try to avoid sitting the family on the opposite side of a desk from me; if at all possible, I arrange the seating so that I can sit among or alongside them.
If you are dealing with clients that are well known to you, you can, of course, be extremely personal in your greeting and your expressions of condolence. After over 30 years in practice, I have many longstanding clients who actually want a hug from me at times of bereavement and, in the right circumstances, this is not to be ignored. If, however, this is your first contact with the family, I would spend the first 10-15 minutes of the interview, after expressing your condolences, asking about themselves and about the deceased. I quite often ask family members, especially if I am conducting the interview in their own home, if I can see a picture of the deceased. Remember that we are dealing with the death of someone who was special to those we are meeting, and we should respect that and be sensitive.
So far as possible I avoid taking notes at the initial meeting. One option is to have a junior member of staff sitting discreetly in a corner taking notes instead. It somehow seems to me rather clinical and disrespectful to allow the administration side to impose itself so heavily on the meeting.
It can also be difficult to correctly identify all the various family members that might arrive, so I always ask them to introduce themselves and provide a little background.
It is important to remember that the shock of bereavement, particularly the sudden shock of a tragic or accidental death, will render the mind numb, and there will undoubtedly be a palpable lack of concentration. Don’t be afraid to repeat significant pieces of information, but equally, don’t overload, particularly at the first meeting.
I find that I can conduct a first interview and answer almost all the questions the family may have without them actually having to ask them. These are the obvious questions, such as how the funeral account will get paid, how they will gain access to some money for day-to-day expenses, what happens about pensions, car insurance, and so on. It is certainly easier for the family if all these aspects are covered without them having to ask the questions directly.
Ongoing client care
There are inevitably going to be large amounts of information that have to be conveyed to a widow or to children. Each has their own individual grief and bereavement pattern. A widow or widower will often be sat at home with long, potentially depressing days stretching in front of them. They will often worry about things that we consider obvious, and gentle reassurance, restating of facts and, in my opinion, regular, brief updates are vital.
I have seen cases where widows have been sent extremely long letters not broken down by paragraphs or headings, and they simply panicked at the prospect of having to digest so much. Information retention and concentration will often be lacking and, although it is time-consuming, it can be much more advantageous to have the client in the office and go through a letter with them point by point before giving them the letter. The management of client expectations, coupled with an understanding of bereavement, is crucial.
On the other hand, if you are dealing with children who have gone back to busy lives following the death of a parent, making yourself available for evening or even weekend telephone calls or meetings will be tremendously beneficial. In our Lake District practice, we often have cases where the only time family members can come back to a former family home for the purposes of clearing it or attending to matters is at a weekend, and we are perfectly willing to meet with clients over a weekend in order to provide that quality service.
At some stage, you may have to break bad news to the family: an investment turns out to be not what they thought, or there are problems in selling a property due to physical deterioration, or the tax bill is going to be larger than originally anticipated. Be sensitive about how you convey this type of information. No widow wants to be told that the home that she has lived in for 30 years in retirement with her late husband is not as valuable as it was, because it needs, in the eyes of a purchaser, knocking down and rebuilding! Unfortunately, I have seen letters from solicitors’ firms to the bereaved which have been extremely cold and clinical in the way they have approached matters. Put yourself in the place of the recipient.
It is also worth making a diary note of significant anniversaries on the file. The deceased’s first birthday or wedding anniversary after the death, and the anniversary of the death itself, will all have significant effects on the surviving family members. Do not be so insensitive as to send important letters around those times, unless it is absolutely necessary. And if it is, tailor your letters accordingly. On the subject of important dates, for particular clients, I have even been known to pick up the telephone on the first anniversary of death and simply say ‘I am thinking of you today’.
Safeguarding the interests of the bereaved
During the first months, the bereaved will go through the whole gamut of emotions, and you need to be extremely aware of potential inappropriate influences or undue reliance by the bereaved on particular family members, friends or neighbours. The whole question of undue influence is a topic for another article, but a bereaved person’s judgement can certainly be cloudy; there can be a desire to give things away to family or friends and then, months later, regret what has happened. It is our job to be sensitive to those requests, but equally, ensure that true undue influence is not being exercised.
Accidents, suicides or even murder bring their own particular emotional struggles, alongside the practicalities of estate administration. If there is a member of your team that is particularly good in the counselling role, it is worth involving them at a very early stage. Indeed, I know firms which have an in-house counsellor or a bank of freelance counsellors who they can recommend. This is especially important when the estate falls into litigation. Battles between stepmothers and stepchildren are increasing, as are Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 claims, and we have suggested to some clients that as part of dealing with the litigation, they should also have counselling or psychotherapy.
Clients will appreciate that there is a cost to your time, skill and expertise, but for some, this may be their first experience of a significant bill of costs. I would advise the use of a narrative bill rather than a copy of the timesheet, and I would always counsel flexibility where some time has been in the ‘hand-holding role’.
For those of us who attend our clients’ funerals, that is always in our own time. There are some cases where attending a funeral is particularly important, if only to set the scene and meet potential beneficiaries – especially if you believe the estate may be complex or potentially litigious. Under these circumstances, I think it is always worth meeting people over the funeral tea.
- Think about the environment in which you are conducting the interview. Is it appropriate? Try and visit at home if possible.
- Be confident in talking about the deceased. If they are not known to you, ask about them: their interests, their career and so on. Ask to see a photograph.
- Use regular brief updates or break down long letters into simple paragraphs with headings.
- Remember that the family will be suffering anxiety, anger and certainly a lack of concentration from time to time; be reassuring and be vigilant.
- Remember significant anniversaries.
Ultimately, bear in mind how would you like to be treated in such a situation, and you shouldn’t go wrong.