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The Universal Wealth saga - where are we now.

This article was written by Robert Horsey from the Disputed Wills and Trusts Team. 

There has been much in the press recently about Universal Wealth Preservation and its associated companies, Universal Trustees LLP, Universal Asset Protection Ltd and Universal Tax Solutions ('Universal'). 

These companies provided a range of services including wealth planning advice to protect their customers' assets from inheritance tax and advice on how to minimise the risk of depletion of assets in care home fees.  Universal's services included the setting up and management of trusts, the writing of Wills and Lasting Powers of Attorney (and registration of those Powers of Attorney with the Office of the Public Guardian), and the storage of related original documents. 

Sadly there have been complaints dating back to 2011 about a range of issues regarding the group's services.  These complaints have been investigated by STEP (the professional association of family inheritance and succession planning specialists),  and have been the subject of an edition of the BBC Radio 4 "Money Box".  Reportedly there have been more than 140 cases of possible fraudulent activity by Universal Wealth Management causing loss to their clients.

The individuals behind the companies are Mr Steven Long and his wife Mrs Melanie Long.  Companies House records show 6 of the 15 companies in relation to which Mr Long was a Director have been dissolved between May 2017 and October 2018. Universal Asset Protection Limited entered into a compulsory liquidation in May 2018.  

STEP has ended Mr Long's membership with effect from 5 October 2018 pending a disciplinary process, and the Suffolk Police, Eastern Region Specialist Operations Unit (ERSOU) is investigating. 

Issues for customers of the Universal group include: concerns about the management (usually the lack of it) of trusts, delay in estate administration,  delay in receiving payments from trusts, concerns over the security of any assets which have been transferred into Trusts managed by Universal (and recoverability of those assets), and the security of original Wills and Trusts documents (and difficulty obtaining those documents from Universal).  In the majority of cases the customers' main asset is their home, which has been transferred into a trust, and a legal charge has been registered against the property in favour of the trustees. 

These issues can usually be addressed relatively easily, but in some cases customers have suffered a financial loss that may be irrecoverable.  Even where the issue is merely the recovering of control of the customer's finances and documents there is likely to be a cost in putting the position right, and it may require an application to Court for a change of executors or trustees.  The fees paid to Universal are likely to have to be written off.

The recommendation for customers of Universal Wealth is to seek independent legal advice from an experienced trust and estate solicitor who can assess your circumstances and advise on the options.  At the very least it may be sensible to change the trustees by deed (if that option remains available). It may also be necessary to make a new Will and Lasting Power of Attorney.  Customers should also, if they have not done already, report their concerns to Action Fraud quoting 'Operation Ardent'.

Ashfords' Disputed Wills and Trusts team would be happy to advise former customers of Universal Wealth on their position and options.  Please contact our Disputed Wills and Trusts Team on freephone 0800 0931336, or by email willdisputes@ashfords.co.uk for a free, no obligation chat to see how we can help you.

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