Bereaved families settling their loved ones’ finances are facing severe delays and costly admin errors during the pandemic, as Which? reveals how some banks are losing death certificates and failing to close accounts of people who have passed away.
The consumer champion surveyed 1,600 members about their experience of acting as an executor and found that many shared stories of delays, administrative errors and poor knowledge when dealing with banks – making an already stressful task even more difficult.
The pandemic also appears to have made the problem worse. One in six (17%) people said they laboured over the process of closing their loved one’s accounts for more than three months before the first lockdown, but that number rose to four in 10 (37%) for those who began probate before March 2020 and carried on afterwards.
Only three per cent of people said it was very difficult to contact the provider before the first lockdown, but the figure shot up to one in six (16%) for those who settled their loved one’s finances during and after lockdown.
The survey also exposed a catalogue of mistakes by banks when dealing with the bereaved, with one in 10 (11%) people dissatisfied with the skill and knowledge demonstrated by bank staff during the process after the lockdown in March 2020.
Dozens of executors said their bank lost the death certificate after they first registered the death.
One bereaved daughter had to fork out £4,000 in funeral fees herself after HSBC lost her late father’s death certificate.
The bank’s bereavement team also failed to send her important forms to close her father’s stocks and shares Isa.
She was offered compensation, flowers and a backdated payment of investment, including the interest lost.
Other executors said they had to chase banks repeatedly to get them to close their loved ones’ accounts.
Another HSBC customer was sent a letter addressed to her late husband about his stocks and shares Isa, despite her notifying the bank that he had passed away several months earlier.
When she complained, the bank said it was a mistake and that its records had now been updated, but several weeks later her late husband received a new credit card through the post.
HSBC said the insensitive mistake was down to “human error”, and has since apologised to the bereaved wife and offered compensation.
In another case, two grieving siblings had to wait 10 weeks to access funds after their mother’s death when they were given conflicting information and Natwest failed to notify its own bereavement department of the death.
One Barclays customer told Which? that his bank misinterpreted his instructions and set up an executor’s account that couldn’t be managed online – a big inconvenience during the pandemic.
He wrote a letter of complaint to which Barclays never responded. Barclays says it has since been in touch to resolve the issue and has apologised for the confusion.
The survey also revealed big differences in the levels of satisfaction with staff skill and knowledge during the probate process across different providers.
The providers with the lowest levels of overall satisfaction among executors were Barclays (58%) and HSBC (67%).
Meanwhile, the providers with the most satisfied customers during the probate process were Post Office Money (86%), Nationwide (80%) and Santander (80%).
Jenny Ross, Which? Money editor, said:
“Our research has exposed unacceptable mistakes by banks cropping up again and again during the probate process, leaving bereaved customers even more distressed and potentially out of pocket because of avoidable errors and delays.
“Banks must ensure they treat executors with compassion by communicating sensitively and making sure their processes are as efficient as possible.”
Notes to editors
Which? surveyed 12,893 members of its online panel between 12th and 23rd November 2020 of which 1,639 members have been responsible for settling a deceased person’s finances in the past 2 years, telling us about 3,754 experiences of dealing with different firms.
Right of replies
HSBC said: “We sincerely apologise that in these cases we have fallen short of the high standards we set ourselves and have taken steps to help ensure the experience with us going forward is a better one. Customers can now report a bereavement to us via our website and submit required documentation electronically, and we have recruited at pace to bolster our dedicated bereavement team. We are working hard to make sure that our customers have the support they need.”
Barclays said: “We understand handling financial matters after a bereavement can be a complex and emotional process. We strive to make that experience as easy as possible for our customers’ loved ones.”
No comment had been provided by NatWest at the time of publication.
Jean Heron received an upsetting letter from HSBC addressed to her husband. Despite Jean having already notified the bank that her husband had passed away several months earlier, here was HSBC giving him a routine update about his stocks and shares Isa.
When Jean complained, the bank said it was a mistake and that its records had now been updated.
Then, several weeks later, her husband received a new credit card. ‘If this wasn’t so sad I could have laughed,’ Jean said.
HSBC said the insensitive mistake was down to ‘human error’, and has since apologised to Jean and offered compensation.
But Jean encountered more sloppiness from HSBC while settling her husband’s finances.
She said she was given ‘confusing’ information over the phone and asked to fill out yet another form when she had already ‘done all that was requested’.
Shortly before Christmas in 2019, Claire Bramley spoke to the HSBC bereavement team about closing her late father’s accounts.
She was told to go into a branch with the death certificate, after which HSBC would release funds for the funeral.
She was also told she would be sent Personal Representatives Closure (PRC) forms to close her father’s stocks and shares Isa. Neither happened.
HSBC lost the death certificate, meaning Claire had to pay the £4,000 in funeral fees herself.
January rolled into February and Claire still hadn’t received the PRC forms.
Because of these delays, the Isa remained open. ‘I was concerned as the stock market had dropped more than 13% due to coronavirus,’ Claire told us. ‘The bereavement team admitted having not sold the shares immediately and hung on to them. I was offered compensation, flowers and a backdated payment of investment to the day I took them in, including the interest lost.’
After their mother passed away in July 2020, Julie Lockwood and her brother approached NatWest about closing her accounts.
NatWest advised them to open an executor’s account on the grounds that their mother had been a NatWest customer.
The siblings were made to feel as though they couldn’t open this account with any other bank – which wasn’t true.
Setting up the account and getting access to their mother’s money proved much harder than Julie or her brother expected.
The siblings had to make multiple trips to different branches because they were given conflicting information.
The bank also failed to notify its own bereavement department of their mother’s death, which slowed down the process.
Ultimately, it was 10 weeks before they could access the funds. ‘Neither of us will ever bank with NatWest again,’ Julie said.
- Try to gather the details of your loved ones’ accounts before they pass away
- Order multiple copies of the death certificate
- Consider getting professional help to accurately value the estate
- Keep detailed records as you’ll be dealing with lots of different organisations
- Keep beneficiaries in the loop
- Complain if things go wrong. You can escalate to the Financial Ombudsman
Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.
The information in this press release is for editorial use by journalists and media outlets only. Any business seeking to reproduce information in this release should contact the Which? Endorsement Scheme team at firstname.lastname@example.org.