Saturday, July 31, 2010

Dealing with the after life

My father died recently. That was the reason for all of the train trips up and down to Chester which you may have noticed. This posting isn't about that, though, it's about what happens after life. Not the grieving process, or deciding which ornaments to keep for sentimental reasons - but the logistical process of administering an estate. It's both a simple process, and a complex one. I've never sent to many letters or written so many cheques in such a short space of time.

Out of the process of sorting out my Dad's estate, one thing has stood out for me. That is the difference in level of service - and general approach to the situation - taken by different companies. The requirements have been the same in every case. In every single case, I just want the company to stop providing whatever service they have been providing, and tell me whether the estate owes them money, or they owe money to the estate. Simple. Or so you'd think.

I think it's worth a little diversionary wander through the legalities of administering an estate before talking about specifics, as I think it'll put things in context a little later on. When someone dies, they will usually die with some assets and some debts. Debts need not be explicit debt like a mortgage or personal loan; it could be balance outstanding on the phone bill for calls made in their last month or even state benefits which are paid in advance need repaying. The responsibility for those debts lies with the estate of the deceased, and not with the executor. So even though I have been acting as executor for my Dad's estate, I am not personally liable for any of the debts against the estate. That is to say, the money to pay those bills must come from the assets of the estate and not savings. Right - that's clear as mud then - so, how did companies react to this situation.

Firstly, I'd like to talk about telecommunications companies. Another thing which has astounded me throughout this whole process is the ease with which companies will cease service on the basis of a phone call. Within a five minute phone call to O2 - admittedly made from my Dad's mobile - his service would be switched off at midnight that night and the account closed. O2's handling of the situation was both sensitive and sensible. As his phone wasn't a particularly flashy one, and he was near the end of the contract period, they didn't ask for the phone back - nor did they bother with the couple of pounds outstanding for call charges - they just efficiently and quietly closed the account. They also changed the mailing address on the account to their own address so that any marketing material wouldn't get sent to my Dad's house. An impressive service in stark contrast to that from the mighty BT.

Things started and ended well with BT, but the middle part of the story is rather a sorry tale. I called them - from my Dad's landline - to arrange for the phone and broadband to be cut off, and to give them my details as executor of the estate. So far, so good. Then I received a letter at home in London telling me that my broadband would be cut off. And asking me whether I'd like to reconsider, given the wonderful deals they were offering on broadband. It took a call to them to confirm that it was my Dad's broadband being disconnected, and even then they asked whether I'd like to continue the service... Roll forward a couple of weeks, and a letter arrived at my address in London but addressed to my Dad. Proudly telling him that he was 40 pounds in credit on his BT account, it was swiftly followed by a cheque in the post made out to him. Not a great deal of use to me. When I called BT to point out that not only was it a bit insensitive, it was also rather stupid, to send a cheque to someone recently deceased, they offered to pay the money by direct debit into his bank account instead (!). I shalln't ramble about BT for too long, but it was only thanks to a mention on Twitter and the @BTCare team that the whole thing got sorted. Not impressed with BT at all - you'd think a large company could cope with this.

Another group of companies who need dealing with are the financial companies - banks and credit cards, etc. Generally, my experience with the financial companies found them to be efficient and most seemed to have dedicated teams dealing with this exact situation. The star of the financial show has been MBNA. A simple phone call, and I got a letter telling me the outstanding balance on the card, and a polite instruction that if the assets of the estate became available, I should send them a cheque but they would give me a call in six weeks time to check on progress of the estate but that generally, I didn't need to stress about paying them; I could just send them a cheque when I had the cash from my Dad's bank. My Dad's bank were Santander/Alliance and Leicester/whatever they're called.

Santander were efficient, and things came through pretty quickly, but there is one gripe I have about their service. When their probate team sent a letter asking for some formal documents to release the money there was a phone number at the top. Ringing this number went through to the normal Alliance and Leicester customer service line. In order to get to speak to anyone on this line, you need to know a customer number. And my Dad's customer number had become invalid at the point his account was frozen during the first phone call. And doing the normal trick of playing dumb and staying silent through the automated service didn't get me through to a person anyway. Having said that, they did release funds very quickly on receipt of the formal paperwork, and so besides the niggle of not having a phone number to allow me to talk to the probate team, they certainly didn't provide bad service.

One other approach which some companies take to the probate issue is to farm out the problem. "Very" - my Dad's catalogue company - do exactly this. They provide you with the phone number for a specialist probate solicitor who arranges to close the account and collect any money due on their behalf. This approach works well as a probate solicitor obviously understands the difference between a personal debt against the executor and a debt against the estate.

It's just a shame that Wirral Borough Council don't also understand this difference. I called them just a few days after my Dad died to explain the situation, and provide my details so that they could send me through a statement of Council Tax account to be settled if necessary. What I didn't know at the time is that instead of listing me as executor of the estate, they had actually transferred the account into my name - hence making me liable for the Council Tax on my Dad's property. So a few weeks ago, a bill arrived - with a demand for payment in seven days and an explicit threat of "recovery proceedings" - addressed to me. The people I spoke to at the council didn't seem to understand that this was a problem, and repeatedly suggested that I could just pay the bill from my own account, and then they would stop asking for the money. It took half an hour of reasoning for me to get them to put the account in the name of my Dad's estate and that they'd have to wait for the assets of the estate to come through. You'd think a council would be better set up to deal with this. Anyone who was less level-headed than me - and let's face it, it's normal to lose some composure when you've just lost a parent - may have paid the bill without a thought - maybe even if they couldn't actually afford it. I must admit to being deeply disappointed in the way Wirral Borough Council handled this.

Of course, Council Tax isn't the only household bill. In these days of freely switching between utility companies, it's impossible to tell who someone's supplier may be in the absence of a bill. There was no bill, and no direct debits, and so I had to take a different approach to this particular problem. I found from Google that seven utility companies serve my Dad's area, and so I took meter readings, and wrote a letter to the customer services team at each. Just a simple letter to say "here are the meter readings - if you were a supplier, please let me know". A couple of companies wrote short letters back to say that they were not a supplier; most didn't bother. But full marks go to British Gas for their response. I had a polite, concise letter back to say that they supplied both gas and electric, and that final bills would follow which I should pay once I had access to the assets of the estate. In a word. Perfect. Well done British Gas!

At a time of bereavement, companies generally try to avoid trying to sell you things. When you call to terminate the service, they are usually understanding and don't try to persuade you otherwise. Once exception to this has been the crematorium. About three weeks after the funeral, I received a letter from the crematorium with a lovely brochure of plaques, headstones, benches and trees suggesting that I may like to remember my father by buying something. Bear in mind that this is a local authority crematorium to whom I'd already paid over five hundred pounds for the hire of a chapel for 25 minutes. I'm afraid this brochure went into the shredder without being read.

So there you have it - a whistlestop tour through what I've been up to with my evenings and weekends for the past few weeks.

If you find yourself having to administer someone's estate, there's plenty of advice I could give. I've only been through it once, but I've learned a lot. But if I had to distil my advice down to just a single piece of advice, it would be this. Dictate the pace yourself. Write a list of who you need to contact, and when they send bills, pile the bills up until you get the money from the estate. You have to pay for the funeral before probate sometimes, but don't be tempted to pay anything else - not even a tenner on a phone bill. And don't let any company bully you into writing a cheque yourself - and they will try...

A rather strange blog entry, I know - but I hope you found it interesting. Oh, and please don't feel embarrassed - as I know some people would be - to read me talking about my Dad's death. Death really isn't something to be squeamish or embarrassed about - it's coming to us all eventually - and avoiding the subject or hiding it behind euphemisms doesn't change that fact. to lose someone is, of course, upsetting and I'd give anything to have my Dad back and enjoying his life - but I'm not embarrassed or squeamish about saying that he's died so - dear reader - please don't be either of those things when you read this - it wasn't written to upset anyone.