Universal Wealth Preservation (Universal) was an unregulated company that set up trusts, handled investment and produced Wills – often appointing themselves as executors and trustees. They held seminars persuading clients they could help them avoid paying inheritance tax and care home fees. The company was dissolved in early 2018, and Suffolk Constabulary announced an investigation on suspicion of fraud by two individuals connected with the firm.
Unfortunately, Universal clients now face the prospect they are unlikely to retrieve original documents or to recover cash assets. The business premises have been closed, the company website taken down and difficulties remain in contacting Universal.
The reality is that little to no client protection exist where unregulated firms (i.e. not authorised by Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) or the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA)) are used. Unregulated companies do not have the appropriate insurance or training and are not answerable to any organisation – so such service provider should be avoided. It should be noted that such unregulated companies are legally allowed to use the terms lawyer, or legal services, to advertise themselves. Only the word "solicitor" is regulated and so you should be wary of "lawyers" – are they regulated solicitors?
The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) - a professional body promoting training and high professional standards in the private wealth sector - advises Universal clients to:
- Seek independent legal advice from experienced trust and estate practitioners to put things right before it is too late to do so.
- Check whether LPAs have been registered with the Office of Public Guardian. If so, cancel LPAs which appoint Universal as attorneys.
- Create new Wills and LPAs, where there is still sufficient mental capacity and seek specialist advice where there is not.
- In the situation where a Universal director was appointed as executor and their customer has died, contact the Probate Registry who can exercise special court powers to appoint new executors.
- Make a report to Action Fraud quoting 'Operation Ardent', if appropriate.
The trust and estate planning sector is not regulated in England and Wales, which means anyone can set themselves up to advice on Wills and estate planning, regardless of whether or not they are qualified, trained, insured or regulated. The Universal situation highlights the importance of using regulated firms to protect your assets. Where a regulated firm is closed or investigated, client's assets remain protected and can be recovered.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.