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How far have we come and how can we be more compassionate by digitising death notifications?

By Luke Cheadle, Head of UK Operations for The Estate Registry


There are more than 500,000 deaths in the UK each year, and for the bereaved left behind, the process of registering a death and then notifying all the relevant organisations can be extremely distressing, both financially and emotionally.

In 2022 the UK Commission on Bereavement (COB) found that 61% of relatives struggle with the administration and practicalities of death notifications. Some 43% end up in financial difficulties. The commission made several recommendations to the Government on how to ease the burden on grieving relatives, and last December, it reported on the slow progress made so far.

The first challenge is registering a death. The Commission called on the Government to change current legislation, so that deaths can be registered in person or online, because many people cannot get to a registry office easily, particularly not within the statutory five days. Certain ethnic groups also need burials to happen quickly for religious reasons.

The Data Protection and Digital Information (No.2) Bill currently progressing through parliament does contain clauses to allow an online registry to be created. It has taken more than 12 months to reach Parliament, but the bill progressed quickly through its first and second reading in December. Hopefully, it won’t take too long to reach its third and final reading, and the process will become further automated so that the representatives of the deceased are able to register the death themselves in a timely and convenient fashion.

This will help to solve some of the issues for the bereaved, but there is another more complicated part of the process that appears not to be progressing as fast. In its 2022 report, the COB also recommended extending the remit of the Government’s registration website, ‘Tell Us Once’, beyond its own departments.

Once the next of kin or executor of an estate has registered the death, they can choose to use the ‘Tell Us Once’ online service to automatically notify most government departments of the death all at once, including HM Revenue and Customs, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Passport Office, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and the local council, among others. After the pandemic, this service was being used for 80 per cent of death registrations. The COB recommended that the Ged with the private sector to broaden its remit and include certain essential third parties, such as service providers.

The recommendation was based on the stories of bereaved relatives trying to close the decedent’s accounts, such as telephone and gas, or trying to transfer them to a living partner, spouse or child. The process can take months; often involving many long, frustrating phone calls to untrained and unsympathetic call centres or trusting physical death certificates, passports, or the power of attorney to the post before the company will act. Account providers often have their own requirements and cumbersome processes, adding unnecessary stress to people who are already distressed. Meanwhile, the utility companies, telecoms providers, creditors etc, continue to charge costs to the decedent’s account.

Clarity and speed are important because these delays can also have a detrimental financial impact on the bereaved. The law currently states that unless a death certificate has been provided, the service provider is under no obligation to repay the funds taken. Potentially even more worrisome for the next of kin is the inability to transfer, for instance, shared services like mobile phone or internet subscriptions from the deceased. This can result in the deceased’s partner or family being cut off just at a time when the service might be needed most.

Such stories led the Commission to recommend that regulators work with industry to develop a minimum standard to improve the process for death administration. While a thorough review of the ‘Tell Us Once’ service is underway by The Department for Work and Pensions, it is apparently focused on its existing functionality and coverage, which requires improvement, rather than extending the service to a broader church.

In the current digital age with the advent of AI, online banking and payment systems, making the process more convoluted than it needs to be for grieving relatives seems devoid of compassion at best, inhumane at worst, and certainly unnecessary in this day and age.

While the Government appears slow to enact some of the recommendations made by the COB, there are examples of how the private sector is making better progress in improving the administration of death notifications.

Recently a new technology platform has been launched that simplifies the process for the bereaved to notify utilities and similar organisations when a customer passes away. Developed between Philips & Cohen Associates (PCA), which provides deceased account management services, and home energy supplier E.ON Next, NotifyNOW is a new online solution accessed through a simple link embedded in the energy provider’s website. By clicking on the link, the next of kin, executor or individual acting on the deceased’s behalf can access and complete a form with contact details, probate status, creditor information, landlord details, meter readings, and who is taking over the account. The representatives of the bereaved will not have to contact a call centre or speak to anyone if they don’t wish to; they can simply go online and quickly fill out the form on any day of the week and at any time.

The online platform is designed to provide a more compassionate, and essentially better, customer service at a very sensitive and challenging time. It is a promising start, and it is creating a tangible impact that improves the overall customer experience. However, there is plenty of work to be done, and The Estate Registry believes it is time the whole death notification process is brought into the 21st century, by embracing the digital age and enabling more compassionate treatment of the bereft – many of whom will be quite vulnerable at this time in their own lives.

This article was submitted to be published by Estate Registry  as part of their advertising agreement with Today’s Wills and Probate. The views expressed in this article are those of the submitter and not those of Today’s Wills and Probate

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