Have you been affected by Universal Wealth Preservation? Read our Q&A
1. What happened to Universal Wealth Preservation?
STEP has received an unprecedented number of enquiries regarding Mr Steven Peter Long and the companies of which he is a Director, namely Universal Tax Solutions of Dencora House, 34 White House Road, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP1 5LT, which traded as Universal Wealth Preservation. Associated companies include Universal Asset Protection Ltd and Universal Trustees Ltd.
Universal Asset Protection entered into compulsory liquidation in May 2018, with the business premises of Universal Wealth Preservation having closed several months previously. We do not know, nor can we speculate as to why the business ceased trading.
Clients contacted STEP after they experienced great difficulties in contacting Universal, with no responses to emails, letters or phone calls.
We have been advised by clients that they have been concerned about the management of their trusts, with delays in estate administration and payments from the trusts being made, in addition to being unable to ascertain the whereabouts of their assets, or retrieve original wills and LPAs held in secure storage.
Universal clients now face the realistic prospect that they are unlikely to retrieve original documents or to recover cash assets.
STEP is aware that the Eastern Region Special Operations unit is investigating, and the Police have previously seized all documents that were held at Dencora House.
We understand from media reports in December 2018 that Steven Long was sentenced to a prison term for contempt of court for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of client assets. This is a civil matter and is not related to the investigation by the Eastern Region Special Operations Unit. We understand that criminal investigations are still underway.
2. I am a client of Universal Wealth Preservation, what should I do?
STEP is advising Universal clients to:
- Seek independent legal advice from an experienced trust and estate practitioner on your options, which may include how to make an application to the courts to replace Mr and Mrs Long/Universal Asset Protection Ltd as trustees, making new wills and LPAs
- Check whether Lasting or Enduring Powers of Attorney have been registered with the Office of the Public Guardian – call the OPG on 0300 456 0300
- If not in possession of an original will, make a new one without delay. In situations where someone has already passed away, we understand that Probate Registries are aware of the situation with Universal and registrars will accept a Rule 54 application for a copy of the will to be used. In circumstances where the Universal directors are appointed as executors, registrars will accept a Section 116 application to appoint new executors.
- Contact the Land Registry to ascertain in whose name your property is registered. Call the Land Registry on 0300 006 0411. We understand that the Land Registry is aware of the issues with Universal. If applying to remove Universal Trustee Ltd or Mr and Mrs Long as Trustees, the Land Registry will require a copy of the original Trust Deed.
- If appropriate, consider whether to make a report to Action Fraud quoting ‘Operation Ardent’
- Many clients will require Universal Trustees Ltd to sign forms that release them as trustees. In such circumstances, clients’ legal representatives (solicitors and barristers) only can submit a written request for up-to-date contact details to be released to them. Such requests should be made via firstname.lastname@example.org
- If concerned by marketing information received or direct approaches from other firms advising you to use their services, consider taking advice from Trading Standards/Citizens Advice Bureau.
You may also wish to access these sources of support and advice, which are free to use:
- Citizens Advice, www.citizensadvice.org.uk, national advice line – 03444 111 444
- Age UK, www.ageuk.org.uk, national advice line - 0800 678 1602
3. Do I need to replace Universal/Mr and Mrs Long with another professional trustee?
No, you do not need to appoint a professional trustee.
As a general rule, anyone over the age of 18 can be a trustee. But you will want to be very careful about who you give the power and responsibility of trusteeship to.
Many people appoint a trusted family member or friend for trusts that take effect after their death. For trusts that take effect in your lifetime, you can appoint yourself and your spouse/civil partner/partner as trustee(s) if you wish, so that you retain some control over the assets and the decision-making power, though you must exercise this for the benefit of the beneficiaries.
A professional trustee can be helpful if the others are unfamiliar with the obligations of the role. Alternatively, you can appoint family or friends and they can take advice from a professional trustee as and when necessary.
More information on what to look for when choosing a trustee is here.
4. I have been approached by another firm who say they have taken over from Universal, what should I do?
We have become aware that various firms are appearing to try and exploit the situation by securing business from clients of Universal. Some of these firms appear to be run by former associates of the directors of Universal and offer to retrieve the client’s documents and the assets held by Universal trustees. There are also suggestions that in some cases these firms are putting undue pressure on clients to act quickly and this may breach trading standards.
We are further aware of at least one firm that has received written instructions from Mr Long to take over the administration for a small number of clients.
Universal clients should therefore be particularly cautious if contacted by any third party about their family trusts. While it is understandable that you will want to resolve the situation as quickly as possible, we would strongly suggest that you take independent legal advice before taking any action.
5. What is STEP doing about Mr Long?
We have received a number of complaints since September 2017 regarding Mr Steven Peter Long and, following review, STEP suspended Mr Long’s membership on 1 November 2017.
Mr Long was permanently excluded from STEP membership on 5 October 2018, following the completion of our disciplinary investigation.
In reaching its decision, the Investigation Sub Committee considered a number of complaints we had received covering a wide range of issues, including:
- a failure to respond to communications from clients and STEP
- a failure to release information relating to estate accounts
- a failure to provide details of business continuity arrangements
- permitting unnecessary delays in winding up family trusts
- withheld or failed to distribute funds
- a failure to advise on where monies had been invested.
Mr Long was found to have breached STEP’s Codes of Professional Conduct in respect of Integrity (Code 3), Courtesy (Code 5), Honesty (Code7), Handling of Client Property: Duty of Care (Code 9.1), Fees: Fiduciary Relationship (Code 10.3), Continuity Arrangements (Code 16).
6. What is STEP’s role?
We recognise the distress this case has caused for clients of Universal and are doing everything we can to provide advice and support to anyone affected.
Any case in which a professional abuses the trust placed in them by their clients is unacceptable. This kind of situation involving one of our members is extremely rare and something we take very seriously.
As a professional body, our primary purpose is to promote education and high professional standards. To become a member, practitioners must have the requisite qualifications and experience, and to maintain their membership they are required to stay up to date with the latest developments undertaking continuing professional development and, importantly, adhere to STEP’s Codes of Conduct. We take a robust approach to anyone found to be breaching our professional standards.
STEP is not a regulator, however, and has no statutory backing, so we do not operate a compensation fund. We have consistently argued for the regulation of the wills and estate planning sectors to protect consumers.
7. What should I look for when choosing a company to advise on wills/trusts/estate planning?
The trust and estate planning sector is not regulated in England and Wales, which means that anyone can set themselves up to advise on wills or estate planning, regardless of whether or not they are appropriately qualified.
Because of this, you should take care when choosing an advisor to make sure they are well qualified, experienced and have a good reputation. Some questions you should ask are:
- How long has the company been trading?
- Are they regulated by any body/bodies?
- Have they signed up to any professional codes?
- Do they have a good reputation?
- Are their charges reasonable?
- Do they have professional indemnity cover, or other protection in place?
- Do they have a published complaints process?
- Who are the directors? Check their credentials and background
- Do you know who owns the company? This can be checked with Companies House.
You should take your time and shop around to ensure you are completely comfortable with the company before you make a decision.
You should also be aware that where a company has drawn up a will or a trust for you, you are not obliged to include them as executors or trustees.
If you have any queries about Universal, please contact STEP’s Professional Standards Manager on 020 3752 3762 or email email@example.com