Care from the NHS is free, but if you need social care because you’re physically or mentally frail, you have to pay for it yourself.
And it is not cheap.
The latest figures show a place in a residential care home in the UK costs, on average, more than £30,000 a year. A nursing home costs more than £40,000 a year. In the South East, it is £10,000 a year more than that, according to consultants LaingBuisson.
There is financial help from local authorities, but it is strictly means-tested.
You only qualify if your home, savings and investments are together worth less than £23,250.
If you are worth more than that, you have to pay the full cost of your care – during your lifetime and, if necessary, from your estate after you have died.
It may not leave much for your family to inherit.
Which is why marketing leaflets from a will-writing firm called Universal Wealth Preservation are eye-catching.
The leaflet claims that 45,000 families are forced to sell their homes every year, to pay for care.
‘He thought it was a good thing’
In 2015, one of Universal’s leaflets dropped through the letterbox of retired teachers Susan and Don Steer. Don had just been diagnosed with a terminal cancer.
Since the Steers owned their home near Hull outright, and had savings as well, they would not qualify for council support.
“Don thought that if he had to go into a care home or nursing home that we would have to pay and we could lose the house,” Susan recalls. “Universal said they could protect the house from care home fees, and he thought that would be a good thing to do.”
So, after a home consultation with a Universal representative, the Steers signed up, paying Universal a fee of almost £4,000.
Universal’s scheme works by transferring the ownership of assets like a home or savings into what it calls a “Wealth Preservation Trust”.
Trusts are legal devices designed to hold assets on behalf of named beneficiaries – often children.
With a trust owning the assets, the theory is those assets will no longer be counted in the means test. That should make it more likely that the individual will qualify for local authority help.
But there’s a big catch.
According to Bridgette Shilton, chair of the National Association of Financial Assessment Officers, if avoiding care fees is a substantial motive for putting assets into a trust, then a local authority can challenge it as “deliberate deprivation”.
“If people are trying to protect their house in the avoidance of care fees then that’s not allowed; that is a clear deprivation of assets. It doesn’t work,” Ms Shilton says.
“As soon as we find out a property has been transferred we will be looking into the motivation, we will be asking questions.”
If trusts are genuinely set up for reasons other than avoiding care fees, Mary Butler, the senior partner of solicitors Bell Buxton, says they may succeed in avoiding care fees as well.
“I’m not saying that these products would not in certain circumstances work, if you were seeking to part with ownership of a property when you’re fit and healthy, when there’s no prospect whatever that you’re going to go into a home.”
But with the financial squeeze on local authorities growing, Mary Butler says, it’s getting harder to slip such trusts under the radar.
“We’ve got a social care crisis on our hands now, a local authority funding crisis, so they’re using every possible means to get money in. The people who are looking at these forms are wise to the stunts that people pull.”
Don Steer died last year. He never did pay care fees because his treatment was covered by the NHS.
Universal says its representative wasn’t told the Steers’ main goal was protecting the family home from care fees. It says it wasn’t told that Don’s cancer was terminal and would have provided different advice if it had been.
Surprisingly, while care fee protection is prominent on Universal’s marketing fliers, the company told the BBC: “We deny that we offer strategies to avoid paying care fees.”
We wanted to explore what lies behind this apparent contradiction, but Universal did not take up the BBC’s offer of an interview.
Potential customers might therefore be wise to ask searching questions of their own, or to take advice from a solicitor before signing up.
Universal is one of a number of firms offering such services. Almost all are unregulated, so customers have nowhere to complain if things go wrong.
In 2013, Chris Grayling, then Lord Chancellor, turned down a recommendation from the legal industry and consumer groups that will-writing should be regulated.
And the government has delayed the introduction of a £72,000 cap on the amount anyone has to pay towards their care. Originally scheduled for April last year, it’s now postponed to April 2020.
Economist Andrew Dilnot, the chair of the commission that first proposed the care fee cap in 2011, says a cap would remove the fear generated by a means test he describes as the “most pernicious” in Britain.
He says a £72,000 cap would also reduce the incentive for people to try to avoid paying them altogether.
“If we could get the cap in place, the worst case is that you’d be liable up to the cap. So you’re taking away the catastrophic element and I think then the avoidance industry would find things much tougher.”
Removal of the fear of the financial catastrophe would also reduce the moral dilemma care fees now pose for people like Susan Steer.
“I’m torn about what I feel,” she says. “I don’t like the rule about having to sell to pay for care home fees. On the other hand, I’ve got socialist views so it sounds ludicrous, but it’s human nature to not want to sell the house.”