Dunning the Deceased: Institutions Can Be in Denial About Death


After a person dies, many companies and other institutions often need to be notified: insurance companies, Social Security, banks, to name a few. But sometimes institutions can be quite insensitive or even incapable of dealing with the concept of death. A leading nationwide bank charged its annual service charge to an account just after the account holder, an elderly woman, had died. When the bill was not paid, the bank added late-payment fees and interest charges that increased the bill by $60 in three months.

The following exchange ensued between the deceased woman’s great-nephew and the bank:

Nephew: “I am calling to tell you [my great-aunt] died in January. Bank: “The account was never closed and the late fees and charges still apply.” Nephew: “Maybe, you should turn it over to collections.” Bank: “Since it is two months past-due, it already has been.” Nephew: “So, what will they do when they find out she is dead?” Bank: “Either report her account to the frauds division or report her to the credit bureau, maybe both!” Nephew: “Do you think God will be mad at her?” Bank: “Excuse me?” Nephew: “Did you just hear what I was telling you – the part about her being dead?” Bank: “Sir, you’ll have to speak to my supervisor.” Supervisor gets on the phone: Nephew: “I’m calling to tell you she died in January.” Supervisor: “The account was never closed and the late fees and charges still apply.” Nephew: “You mean you want to collect from her estate?” Supervisor: “[stammer] Are you her lawyer?” Nephew: “No, I’m her great-nephew.” (Lawyer information is given) Supervisor: “Could you fax us a certificate of death?” Nephew: “Sure.” (Fax number is given) After the bank gets the fax: Supervisor: “Our system just isn’t set up for death. I don’t know what more I can do to help.” Nephew: “Well, if you figure it out, great! If not, you could just keep billing her. I don’t think she will care.” Supervisor: “Well, the late fees and charges do still apply.” Nephew: “Would you like her new billing address?” Supervisor: “That might help.” Nephew: “Odessa Memorial Cemetery, Highway 129, Plot Number 69.” Supervisor: “Sir, that’s a cemetery!” Nephew: “What do you do with dead people on your planet?”

There is not getting around the deeply personal quality that many of these interactions will have. Some people will get it; some won’t. Here is a story of someone who “got it.”

“A friend went to the D.C. [District of Columbia] Motor Vehicle Bureau to change the title on his car after his young wide had died. He handed over the title and her death certificate. The middle aged black woman took the papers, read them, and when she realized that the death certificate was for a young woman, likely the wife (they had different last names), she looked up and said, with feeling, ‘I am so sorry.’ He said he felt momentarily taken care of – and notes that he remembers the event twenty-four years and five months later.”

How official must the notice of death be? Landsman notes that if the death means a company must pay someone money, such as life insurance, valid proof of death in the form of a death certificate is required. But if the death means that a company stops paying money or providing services – for example, Social Security, pensions, or cable TV services – then they have no reason to demand proof of death in the form of a death certificate.

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