Were you taken in by a leaflet put through your letterbox that looked similar to this?
Or perhaps you were invited to attend a seminar locally called “Keep It In the Family”, run by Universal Wealth Preservation or any of its associated companies?
The police’s Eastern Region Specialist Operations Unit is investigating over 100 reports of fraudulent activity relating to the Universal group of companies which includes Universal Tax Solutions, Universal Wealth Preservation Ltd, Universal Asset Protection Ltd and Universal Trustees Ltd.
The Universal Group companies’ directors and owners, Steven and Melanie Long, were arrested as inquiries continued. They were also the subject of a BBC “Inside Out” investigation, and the situation has been discussed on Radio 4’s “Money Box” programme.
Complaints against Universal Wealth date back to 2011 about a range of issues regarding the group’s services. Some of the complaints were investigated by STEP (the professional association of family inheritance and succession planning specialists), culminating in STEP terminating Mr Long’s membership with them from 5 October 2018.
On 18 December 2018, The Times reported that Steven Long had been jailed for eight months for contempt of court. Mr Long had appeared before Mrs Justice Rose who heard how hundreds of people had seen their savings disappear after the collapse of Steven & Melanie Long’s Ipswich-based companies. Mrs Justice Rose ordered Mr Long to provide information to the High Court to help track down the missing money, and he was jailed for failing to provide that information.
No criminal charges have been brought, but Steven Long is now facing 27 damages claims from families amidst what The Times described as “cogent evidence” of a “massive fraud”.
In the Universal Group’s “Keep It in the Family” seminars, they made promises to protect investors’ assets from future inheritance tax and/or care home fees by the use of wills, whereby they appointed themselves as executors, and trust arrangements where they were named as trustees, with the ability to charge for their ongoing services.
Instead of providing the protection that had been promised, clients have been left in an untenable situation as their homes are registered in the names of the trustees of these questionable trusts, in many instances in the names of Mr and Mrs Long themselves. The only evidence they have of their cash investments is the scant paperwork which the Universal Group provided them with at the outset. In addition, in the majority of cases, original wills and Lasting Powers of Attorney prepared by Universal Wealth are now missing.
Were you told you could create a trust to avoid care home fees? If so, sadly you are not alone.
Unfortunately, none of the products provided by Universal Wealth can legally protect your home if the intention of setting up a trust was to avoid care home fees. Were you told that at their seminars?
If you created a trust with any of these companies, you could face annual fees.
Worse still, these trusts very often do not do the job they were set up to do, because they could leave you open to accusations by your local authority of “deliberate derivation”. This is the term used when a local authority believes an individual has deprived themselves of cash or assets with the primary intention of avoiding care home fees.
STEP has published advice to individuals who have been victims of Universal Wealth. If you have been affected, then we can help you to implement this advice and sort things out for you.
At Barrett & Co, we are already helping a number of people who have found themselves in this situation. Our experts are familiar with the structures involved and the steps that need to be taken solve the problems these have caused.
What Barrett & Co can do for you
- We can provide you with independent legal advice from an experienced trust and estate practitioner on your options.
- One of the steps we may need to take is to make an application to the courts on your behalf to replace Mr and Mrs Long or Universal Asset Protection Ltd as trustees.
- We can check whether your Enduring or Lasting Powers of Attorney have been registered with the Office of the Public Guardian.
- We can prepare documents that cancel any Enduring or Lasting Powers of Attorney you made that appoint Mr & Mrs Long as your attorneys.
- We can prepare new Wills and Lasting Powers of Attorney for you, with new executors and attorneys.
- In situations where someone has passed away and the original Will cannot be located, we can work on your behalf with the Probate Registry to allow a photocopy of the will to be used instead.
- Where someone has died and their Will appoints Mr & Mrs Long as executors, we can work on your behalf with the Probate Registry to submit an application to appoint new executors.
- We can contact the Land Registry to ascertain in whose name your property is registered. The Land Registry is aware of the issues with Universal Wealth and is working with legal professionals to amend the titles to properties as appropriate.
- If you have a trust in place, we can advise you on the options available to you. These may include removing Mr & Mrs Long as trustees if the trust documents permit that, or taking steps to wind up the trust if that is the best option for you.
Many people are unaware that this sector is not regulated in England and Wales, which means that anyone can set themselves up as an estate planner or a will writer, even if they are not properly qualified. The Universal Wealth case highlights the dangers of having an unregulated industry and the devastating results that can happen because of that.
It is important to remember that wills and trusts are legal documents. We would strongly advise you to consult a solicitor with specific expertise in this area when making decisions about your estate or writing a will. Solicitors really are experts in their field and can help you to avoid future problems.
Sadly, Universal Wealth is not the only enterprise that has defrauded people out of millions of pounds under the banner of “estate planning”. If you have been a victim of fraud because of the actions of any organisation, not just Universal Wealth, please come and talk to us.
For more information on these issues, or to book an appointment to talk to someone, please contact Jane Whitfield at [email protected] or on 0118 958 9711.