Dealing with a Sudden Death in the age of Digital Data

 by Elizabeth Darling

Sibylesque bureaucracy quote

When my partner died unexpectedly my generous local bookseller gave me a book on grief counselling titled “I wasn’t ready to say goodbye”. There are many helpful books on coming to terms with grief and loss. Funeral directors, banks, solicitors; all have handy lists of things to do and organisations to contact. The lists are useful, but if we had prepared ourselves for the possibility of a death and its consequences, I would have had the space and time for grief. I do not write of philosophical or spiritual preparation, I write of ordinary practical arrangements, which need to be made and reviewed during a partnership. I’d like here to share some advice, which will help others find time to grieve, rather than waste emotional effort in railing against petty officialdom.

We had sensibly made wills and written agreements about the form of funeral service and the disposal of ashes. These agreements saw me through the first stages, past the unamused funeral director who could not provide an IKEA style coffin, the disapproving relatives who expected a religious funeral service, and gave me the strength to demand the ashes from the crematorium without purchasing a tasteful urn and plaque for placement in their memorial gardens.

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The next 9 months were filled with time spent, not grieving, but becoming increasingly frustrated and desperate, on the end of a phone, listening to strangers in call centres who were “so sorry for my loss” but who were unable to help me because I didn’t have the required papers, code words or numbers, and who frequently demanded to speak to the person whom I had told them was dead. Although they never used that word, it was always ‘Deceased’. Filling in forms occupied a great deal of time, many required supplementary documentation. Some forms needed to be submitted a number of times.

Here is a list of actions which you should take while your partnership is active to avoid this mind numbing experience:

Store in one place relevant documents and update regularly. There are a number of essential documents; passports, birth, marriage and divorce and death certificates, investment and superannuation papers, tax returns, and whatever will be needed for next year’s tax returns, mortgage and insurance papers, property titles, car registrations, bank records, the Christmas card list; those papers you would save if a bushfire was threatening.

Make sure that there is a secure, accessible, accurate list of all codes for any transactions on the internet, or records kept on the computer system. This must be on paper, not hidden in the thickets of computer files.

Internet banking and direct debit arrangements to pay regular bills for utilities or other service providers create real difficulties. It is a mistake to drift into the habit of allowing one member of a family to manage the finances, especially when the records are held in computer files. I never learned how to operate the details of the accounts package and slowly the household bills had drifted into his name, and were paid from one of his accounts. This made it difficult to prove that I had any involvement, or rights (more on this under superannuation entitlements).

On the death of an account holder, the banks freeze accounts, and direct debits are then not processed. Our bank could not tell me what direct debits had been regularly paid from my husband’s accounts, and we could not access his files (being clever, he had cryptic clues for his codes kept beside his computer but these were incomprehensible to me). I am now unsure whether it is of benefit to be so reliant on the internet as a vehicle for paying bills, although more and more companies are penalising individuals who want to operate on the paper bill system.

Like most, I have an email address. I use my iPad and my iPhone for communication. I can search for information and use the word processor, but like many of my generation I am unable to operate complex computer systems, having left him to write his own research papers and to edit, spellcheck, rationalise, record, and print out mine. If I’d been asked to explain, I’d have said that he couldn’t paint and I can, we didn’t need to double up on skills. Only he knew how to copy, download, make complex documents, take photographs, and add my illustrations to the text; why should I bother to learn all that when he could do it so easily? I had not considered how I would manage on my own. I certainly did not know how to do an etax form!

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Although we were able to access his emails, we had no way of cancelling or changing any of the arrangements he had made. Pushing the unsubscribe button without the specific identity code is useless. Where a transaction is electronic it is not easy to validate if there is a computer failure. Paper bills addressed to the house (which once could be paid by anyone with a cheque book regardless of the name on the account) are no longer posted. Telephone conversations are of little use, Call Centres rely on callers being computer literate and are unable to help if you cannot download forms or fill in forms on the internet or send a fax or pay electronically. Of course we had bought services and items on the internet, but my role had been to decide what: I did not know how. Being required to take a photograph with your iPhone of the screen of your computer, which showed that you have paid the rates and then to take the phone into the rates office to prove that you have paid the rates because their computer does not, seems too ludicrous to be credible. At least chequebook butts and paper receipts are still seen as legal proof.

Keeping records such as tax returns or medical records in the computer, either on the hard drive or on discs in files or in separate memory sticks presents the same problem, if the information cannot be retrieved. Records on parchment in Mediaeval Latin can with diligence and effort be translated – his files defied accomplished hackers.

We should have asked whether it was better to have services or items in both names or one. I had to pay to have my car’s registration and insurance changed into my name, because although I had bought it, it was registered in his name.

Ask your bank what their policy is on joint accounts. Do they freeze the account if one of the partnership dies? Have you arranged your income so either one could remain solvent until probate has been declared? In some cases this can take a long time. The solicitor was prepared to lend me money in the expectation that probate would ultimately be declared, but no one likes to be a supplicant.

Sibylesque E Darling 1Are all the service manuals for appliances kept in one place? They will be necessary if, as in many households, one person only has worked the appliance. I had not learned how to operate the central heating, the 5 remotes for the T.V. and sound systems, the clothes washing machine. He had always stacked the dishwasher. (Well, he never cooked.) I did not know how to start his car or drive the lawn mower. I could not reach the switch for the hot water system. I might never want to mow the lawn, but I should have learned how to change channels on the T.V. and a number of other routine domestic tasks, which had become his province alone.

Is there a list of the tradesmen usually asked to attend to the blown light bulbs, the blocked drains and other routine maintenance? It’s no use knowing vaguely that when the cistern fails it can be fixed by a neat tap with a hammer, somewhere. What you need to know is how all the idiosyncrasies of the house are controlled. Which brick is placed where to hold open the garage door? How is the heating system turned on and off? If the house alarm goes off unexpectedly how is it cancelled?

Whenever you hire a rental property for a self-catering holiday there is a folder of instructions for all appliances, and peculiarities of the house (do not turn on both the heater and the kettle at one time, the fuses blow!). Every household should have one, a current one. Instructions for a beta dvd recorder are of little practical use, but notes on how to play back or change messages on the telephone are essential. A number of callers were so distressed to hear his voice still on the answering machine that they hung up without leaving a message. Some were angry with me. I should have known that they would find it distressing.

Make a priority list: some things can wait, some can’t. The funeral director, your solicitor, or the bank will give you a list of organisations, which need to be informed. It is not their role to tell you how long each task will take, or how difficult dealing with each organisation will be. Grief and shock would seem to affect the memory and organisational ability. In a bound book, (scraps of paper lose themselves), make notes of the questions you need answering. Record all conversations. Cross off what has been achieved, on despairing days it is sustaining to see that you have made some progress.

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Decide who can be reliably asked to help and prepare to be vague with others – not everyone who offers to help, can, and you need a bland response, which will acknowledge their offer but not commit you. You have to protect yourself!

Before you make a phone call to an institution (Origin Energy perhaps) or visit one (Vic Roads, for example) check that you have all the documents you will need, and time.

When ringing Call Centres have a novel at hand: I read 2 chapters while on hold to a line to a call centre in W.A. trying to change the name on an account.

Listen carefully to the instructions as to which button to press. I have spent an hour in a queue only to find I was talking to the wrong department.

Remember the individual on shift on the line’s end or at the counter in an institution may know that it is necessary to offer condolences (the manual tells them so) but it is not necessary to deviate one bit from the job description. Be prepared to demand to speak to the supervisor.

It is better to hang up or walk away than to lose your temper or self-control – the only person who suffers is you! As soon as the shift is finished, the operator is done with your problem. You still have to resolve it. (I lost my temper in the Roads Board Offices, with a subsequent migraine headache although I was right, and she was wrong, I had to go back the next day and start again, she simply moved onto another customer)

A Certified copy of Death Certificate is necessary, and of the Will, before any organisation will change anything. Find an amenable JP and get him to certify at least twenty copies.

In general, do not assume that any organisation will be swift to respond. Ask how long it might be before a reply can be anticipated, and follow up if the reply is not timely. It was 10 weeks before we received a death certificate and then only because we persisted. The clerk had been unable to read the doctor’s handwriting so had done nothing to process the form. This is a useful reminder to ensure legibility…

If Superannuation and insurance policies were set up by a partnership with the expectation of supporting the survivor, it is important to know beforehand what the support will be and how it can be accessed. The old Commonwealth Superfund, for example, not only requires a copy of Death Certificate and Will, but also of joint household bills, and other proofs of identity and cohabitation This, they cheerily informed me, was to prevent identity fraud, Who would want to be.

Erithrean Sibyl crop .

Elizabeth Darling is a dynamic thinker, meticulous writer and recent widow, who lives in rural Victoria.

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Comments

  1. Belinda Pearson says

    Much appreciation: I and friends will be very grateful to Elizabeth for gathering together such useful and deeply felt experiences and advice we all need to put into practice. Thank you Elizabeth!
    One small point: people who work at Centrelink, Call Centres etc. are people and I have known several who became severely depressed and left their jobs (in the flesh and on line) because they only dealt with upset and/or angry people!
    Love,
    Belinda Pearson

    • says

      Hello Belinda,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Elizabeth’s post has been appreciated by many. The problem with bureaucracies is that they seem unable to introduce systems to deal with normal, if tragic, events such as the death of a subscriber/client. Perhaps someone should write such a guide.

      Take Care

      Sybil Kerry

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