01 June 2010 Issue 7 Louise Polcaro

New STEP Certificate

STEP is launching a new qualification for England and Wales, The STEP Certificate in Will Preparation. Louise Polcaro interviews Toby Harris about the new Certificate.

Interviewee Toby Harris TEP is a Tax Consultant and Chairman of STEP Probate and Estates Committee.

Why is now the time to produce a qualification in will preparation?

There is really no qualification at ‘degree’ level at the moment, and this is the level deemed by STEP as essential to give a quality service to the client. It is about the protection of the public. If you want to offer a holistic service to clients, where you can advise competently whatever the complexity of the case, then a qualification at the level of the STEP Diploma should be the minimum. Some will-writing groups segregate the instruction taking from the will drafting, mistakenly believing the former requires less skill than the latter. Both require a high level of knowledge and skill to be done competently. In fact, it is in the instruction taking that the expert will uncover the difficulties lurking beneath the surface that the inexpert will miss.

Professionals have an obligation to set and protect standards. Developing rigorous qualifications is one way to do that. There is other education provision currently available, but in STEP’s view the level is too low.

So, the Certificate serves the interests of the public, but what about STEP members?

STEP members have put that argument very clearly to me, especially in meetings of Estates and Trusts Committee. The qualification is of course in the interests of the STEP member. This Certificate is designed with England & Wales members in mind. It will either hone and update their existing knowledge or recognise their current level of experience. For some it might involve significant new learning. Whatever the case, it will validate their ability with formal qualification. Many members –and that includes me – were grandfathered into STEP. We have had no chance to seek a formal, high-quality qualification in will drafting. For the current and future STEP member, the market place is changing. With new entrants into the market STEP members must offer something demonstrably better than the competition. We feel that a high-level qualification with a STEP badge will give members an advantage that is verifiable by assessment and recognised in the market place. This will stand as the benchmark qualification in will preparation and will give a holder of the Certificate a competitive advantage. It is, actually, what other organisations expect of us. We want to stay ahead.

It is for the individual practice, and STEP as a membership body, to ensure that the message gets out to the marketplace.

You see a significant change happening in the market?

I certainly do! Practices will certainly need to recalibrate their levels of expertise in order to develop their offering. A recent E&W Branch Chairs Assembly was titled something to the effect ‘get big, get niche or boutique, get bought up or get out’. Change is on the horizon and, depending on what members do now it will be sunrise for those willing to act and develop their practice but sunset, I’m afraid, for those who bury their heads and just hope for the best. Well-organised competitors with a keen ‘can do’ attitude, technological resource, commercial expertise and the ability to offer economies of scale are a clear and present threat to many E&W STEP members. But this also presents an opportunity for STEP members to develop their probate practice into a vibrant, specialist department, with a reputation for excellence. That, I feel, is the best strategy for many STEP members.

And what about regulation of will writers –there has been considerable talk lately?

The writing of wills is not a regulated activity in England& Wales at the moment, though there are moves to introduce regulation. What form that will take we do not know at this stage. We should not see this as just a means to preserve a cartel. Instead we should embrace it as a chance to shine. TEPs and others armed with this qualification will be well-placed if and when regulation does eventually come into place. The outlook is bright for the specialist will draftsman. The general public are becoming more aware of inheritance issues, inheritance tax is on the political agenda, the media is homing in on the service quality, or increasingly the lack of it, offered by will writing practitioners and there is a huge swathe of the market without a will in place.

But there are other will writing qualifications out there?

There are a few courses but, whilst any attempt to raise standards through education is to be applauded, we feel that there is nothing of a sufficiently high level to ensure that the consumer is protected and is receiving a high enough level of technical expertise. The new STEP Certificate in Will Preparation will either raise the knowledge of participants or recognise the level of knowledge they already possess, validating their expertise.

What would the qualification involve?

The Certificate has been designed to be of STEP Diploma standard, a six-month course with three face-to-face sessions. The face-to-face sessions will be evenly spread out over the period of October to March and participants would cover the relevant content prior to each workshop by reading the manual Martyn Frost and I have written especially for this course.

The content covers taking instructions, will drafting, and tax issues. We also felt that the business side of will writing was important to address: so there is material on marketing, client interaction, and risks and bear traps to avoid. It is comprehensive.

And just to say that the material does not set out to ‘teach’ particular precedents. The aim is instead to teach an understanding of the entire will preparation process as well as an understanding of what the drafting process is and what it involves.

How tough will it be?

It certainly won’t be a doddle! There is significant tax content, so students must be willing to read the law and be able to apply it. How about (for 20 marks) ‘Explain the tax computations applied in re Benham and how to avoid them’ or ‘Comment on the interaction of survivorship clauses, commorientes and the transferable nil rate band’ or ‘Show how Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) can affect appropriations out of estates’?

Seriously, I’ve been reading Martyn’s sections of the training manual. He quotes scores of cases I’ve never heard of, which shows how quickly I must get up to speed before we start teaching the course this autumn. The subject is much bigger than I realised.

Will it count towards the STEP Diploma?

I’m sure it will, in time. I can envisage this Certificate gaining credit towards the STEP Diploma, though currently it is a stand-alone Certificate. It would be a nice option, allowing someone to specialise within the trusts and estates field, in the future.

Can you say a little about the cost, timings and what you get for the course fee?

For a STEP member the cost is GBP890. It is a reduced rate. A non-member would be looking at a fee of GBP1,000. But that higher fee still represents excellent value when you consider there are three training days delivered by specialists, a brand new manual, exam expenses, online support and so on. There will be only one way to get this qualification: no grandfathering, no thesis route, just do the course. That must add value.

You can sign up for this course now. Everything is in place. We aim to start the course in October this year with a final exam in March 2011. Central Law Training will be managing delivery of the course and have been working closely and enthusiastically with Martyn Frost, STEP Education and me on this project.

We plan to run this course once a year. And we’d expect the applicants to be practitioners who are serious about this topic. The course will be run in London and Manchester to begin with.

Who is this course aimed at? Is it exclusively for STEP members?

The qualification is at the level of a STEP Diploma paper and therefore rigorous. We would expect applicants to have a good prior knowledge of will drafting, estate administration and relevant tax.

The natural market for this qualification is TEPs who draft wills, but STEP is an organisation that welcomes all those involved in trust and estate work, as long as they are of the right standard. And this is a very important point – anyone who can pass this rigorous exam will be, de facto, of the right standard. Therefore, if someone feels they have the right experience they are welcome to attempt the qualification.

We think that non-TEP solicitors may be very interested too: they have a high level of training and regulation through SRA, but are restricted, as professionals, from practising beyond their own level of competence. This will be a way for them to demonstrate, unequivocally, their competence in will preparation. Remember, they may not have had substantial taught input on will drafting in their initial training. Many solicitors may have turned to private client work from other legal areas and may welcome the chance to consolidate, build and test their knowledge.

Last question – does this certificate carry any special recognition with it?

Well, obtaining this certificate will represent a significant achievement in this area and it will certainly gain peer recognition. It will certainly carry CPD recognition too – I think I am right in saying that taking the Certificate would technically, in terms of hours, more than cover the annual CPD requirement. That’s 35 hours for TEPs. It will in all likelihood be recognised by other professional bodies for CPD, the Law Society for example. You’d have to check the website for that though.

The certificate was authored by Toby Harris and Martyn Frost. For more information on the STEP Certificate in Will Preparation contact [email protected]

Authors

Louise Polcaro