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Charitable legacies: pioneering new report highlights need for better collaboration between probate practitioners and charities

Posted: 28/06/2017

A comprehensive new research report launched today examines the opinions and perceptions of charity legacy officers and probate practitioners working in the specialist area of charitable legacies.

Legacy officers and probate practitioners expressed varying degrees of frustration and unhappiness with a number of aspects of their working relationship, indicating clear scope for better understanding and collaboration between the two groups.

Authored by the dedicated charity sector team at leading law firm Penningtons Manches, the report is based on an independent survey carried out by Research Oxford, a specialist research agency working in the not for profit sector. It covers seven key topics:

  • competency and level of understanding of the law, tax and regulatory requirements frequency and tone of communication
  • the desire for greater collaboration between charities
  • challenges to the effective administration of charity legacies
  • understanding each other’s needs
  • the need for greater guidance and formal regulation
  • reputational issues for charities

Alison Talbot, Penningtons Manches’ head of charities commented: “Through our day-to-day work we’d picked up on some tensions between legacy officers and probate practitioners. We undertook this research to gain a more thorough and accurate understanding of their relationship and to try and explore the wider themes behind our anecdotal observations. In analysing the data we were in fact surprised by the strength of discontent expressed by some participants.”

In terms of satisfaction / dissatisfaction across a range of measures on a five-point scale, legacy officers and probate practitioners were predominantly satisfied with their own experience of dealing with charity legacies. However they were less satisfied with some elements of the performance of others. For example 82% of legacy officers believe they provide a caring, compassionate and personalised approach to their work, however only 54% of probate practitioners agree with this assessment.

Elsewhere, over a third (34%) of the legacy officers with the most experience were concerned by the probate practitioners’ lack of understanding of some tax exemptions and reliefs. Furthermore, only 38% of legacy officers were satisfied with the willingness of probate practitioners to accept assistance with charity law requirements. The same proportion were dissatisfied with the frequency of updates provided by probate practitioners (rising to 41% amongst those with over ten years’ experience).

In contrast, 46% of probate practitioners were unhappy with the frequency with which legacy officers check in with them and 47% were unhappy with the level of detail they request. This demonstrates a clear mismatch between the respective expectations about the process of administering charity legacies. The tone of correspondence was another area highlighted by the results: only 55% of probate practitioners agreed that the tone of correspondence from charities is appropriate and 29% actively disagreed. Over a third (36%) also believed that legacy officers do not personalise their approach to suit the circumstances of each individual legacy.

Alison said: “The attitude of some probate practitioners is a real concern for charities. It might be that some of them feel defensive or some simply do not understand the requirements of charities in relation to the collection of charity legacies. However, even if the charity sector finds the views of the probate practitioners frustrating, it has to take notice of the concerns as these individuals are often the gatekeepers to future charity legacies.”

She continued: “For the probate practitioners, there are some salutary messages about the perceived standards of service and competency. The report exposes shortcomings amongst some probate practitioners when dealing with technical issues that can arise in the administration of estates involving charities, and the regularity with which some mistakes are being made is a real worry.  ”

Whilst the majority of legacy officers feel that they fully understand the relevant areas of law and most of them are very satisfied with the level of specialist training they have received, their confidence in their own charity’s senior managers and trustees’ awareness is much lower. Only 52% agreed that their charity’s senior managers had a good understanding of the relevant areas of law and just 29% agreed their charity’s trustees grasped these issues.

Alison concluded: “One of the aims of this research was to identify ways in which the charity sector and probate practitioners can work together to make each other’s roles easier. The next stage in this process is for the Penningtons Manches charities team to work with leaders in both the charity, legal and accountancy sectors to raise awareness of the complexities and nuances of administering estates which include legacies to charities. We also look forward to encouraging everyone involved in managing charity legacies to discuss the issues identified by the survey participants and to collaborate with each other to make sure the process of administering charitable legacies is as straightforward as possible.”

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Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC311575 and is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP