Digitising death 2/2 – how innovation can bring change for the better

10 Nov 2018

In Part 1 I wrote about problems faced by the sector and recent signs of hope. Part 2 covers the hurdles to overcome, and how innovation can bring change for the better for families and the probate industry as a whole.

Taking a photo of the death certificate #

I can open a bank account by taking photos of my passport and my face. I can pay in a cheque with a photo. A relatively simple step forward would be for banks, registrars and utility companies to accept a photo of a death certificate, taken by phone. It would save relatives the cost and hassle of sending this paper document by post, and save institutions the cost of administering the paper trail.

Instant access to digital death records #

Taking a photo is an interim solution. A better one is an open, up-to-date digital death registry. This would remove the need for a paper certificate by allowing deaths to be confirmed digitally, immediately after registration. There is already a semblance of this, albeit one that’s limited and tightly controlled. For recent deaths, confirmation is held in a dataset under the disclosure of death registration information (DDRI) scheme. It’s governed by primary legislation, administered by the GRO and available only to a select number of organisations satisfying strict criteria such as Experian, CallCredit and Equifax. They in turn work with organisations such as the Death Notification Service. The info is sent round once week, around 7-14 days after a death (so it’s never entirely up to date). As a member of the public, I can’t access this information – to confirm a death digitally, I’d have to wait 6 months for it to appear on the GRO website. Which is why thousands of paper death certificates are still pushed around the postal system every day.

A question is whether families, lawyers, credit reference agencies and the financial sector would be much better served by registrations of deaths being recorded instantly on a central death register, accessible to the public and via API. Death’s generally a matter of public record, after all. With a more accessible system, there’d be no (or very limited) need for paper death certificates. Banks, utility companies, credit reference agencies and so on could confirm deaths electronically, instantly. No more time and cost wasted by relatives, solicitors and asset-holders sending / receiving / administering paper certificates. A platform for innovation and a step up in the fight against fraud.

Being able to confirm death digitally is a significant blocker to innovation in the bereavement sector. Changing it requires government support. Let’s send choccies to the design-focused, problem-busting people at GDS and see if they can move the cogs of the machine from within.

Collaboration and standardised bereavement protocols in the finance sector and beyond #

Every banking group has its own deceased account-holder closure / transfer form. But every form is essentially the same. It’s a generic data set — details of the deceased, the family, the accounts, and where they should send the money. On the face of it, there are no commercial reasons why banks, utility companies and others couldn’t accept one set of generic instructions from personal representatives, submitted electronically. Standardisation offers efficiencies and cost-savings for banks and a simpler, faster process for families.

Joined up thinking could also help to standardise grant thresholds across the sector. It’s an oddity that HSBC require the grant on a case-by-case basis, Natwest at £25k, Santander at £50k etc. If there were ways to share information digitally between families and institutions, the banks could, for example, set a threshold of £100k between them, regardless of how much there is in each bank.

Open Banking for the dead? #

Open Banking is the way the UK put in place a piece of European legislation called the Payment Service Directive (PSD2). It’s a big deal for consumers – it opens up banks’ data and allows third parties to build innovative solutions for people’s banking problems. It came online in 2018.

Open Banking is very much for the living. I’ve found no reference in any primary source about implementation after death. The idea of Open Banking for deceased account-holders has been barely discussed publicly (I’ve only ever found one brief blog post on the subject).

Nevertheless, the possibilities are huge. Families and their lawyers could see the deceased’s account balances and transactions online. Figures for tax could be calculated instantly and winding up outgoings made simple. Funds could be transferred electronically, financial summaries created automatically.

There are technical hurdles to using Open Banking for the dead. For example, the central concept of Strong Customer Authentication (SCA) – it’s how an account owner proves their identity and provides authentication by way of a secure key, password, text message, memorable information, etc. This can’t be done, of course, by a deceased account-holder.

Using Open Banking post death is not inconceivable. But if it’s just too far out of scope, at least it has opened minds and sparked innovative thinking within banks. They’re increasingly keen to bring in entrepreneurial people and work with / learn from startups. This encouraging trend will hopefully filter through to the bereavement space.

Open Banking is at its simplest a set of protocols and APIs. Banks and third parties could work together to produce something similar for probate, whether under the Open Banking banner or not. The question will be whether they do so without being forced by government (as they were with PSD2).

Killing off the grant #

The grant of representation (aka grant of probate) was introduced in more or less its current form in 1858, with the establishment of the Principle Probate Registry. ‘Getting probate’ is an essential part of the process for higher value estates: property can’t be sold without a grant; banks need to see a grant before they’ll close high value accounts; Equiniti need one for shareholdings over £10k; etc.

The grant is a product of the courts. As such, personal representatives typically have to swear an oath, often at a probate registry (essentially, a court), complete with metal detectors and security guards. It takes weeks to arrive (by post, naturally), and then has to to be sent off to asset-holders. In today’s world where we can marry, take out a mortgage and open a bank account with more or less just a couple of signatures, the grant is a peculiar anachronism (can you imagine swearing an oath to get a mortgage?).

Today, better options are conceivable. All that’s achieved with the grant could theoretically be achieved digitally, securely and instantly (more or less). For example, Experian, Equifax and the like provide digital identity checks and fraud prevention; the government has its Verify service. The process could be faster, easier and more visible for families, cheaper and more efficient for asset-holders, and as good or better for fraud prevention. As grants are public documents, there’s no legal reason why the information couldn’t be publicly accessible via an API. So, rather than swearing an oath and waiting weeks, it could all be done in minutes.

Banks aren’t legally obliged to require a grant (I believe), but the grant persists because it’s well established and there’s currently no viable alternative. It’s the safe option. It’s also muddled up with the way inheritance tax is paid, legal processes like caveats, and a handful of other reasons which mean that removing or modernising the grant is a complicated proposition. It would require a concerted effort from the British Bankers’ Association and others, and perhaps collaboration with government, which unfortunately has seen it as a way to make money.

Modernising or replacing the grant won’t happen tomorrow. But the days of this Victorian piece of paper in its current form are surely numbered.

Achieving change #

Openness, collaboration, innovation and design thinking are key to achieving change in the bereavement sector, and doing it well.

While probate is traditionally seen as belonging to the legal space, solutions may largely be driven by finance. (After all, probate, really, is about sorting out assets, debts and tax.) But whether it’s LawTech or FinTech, who cares? It’s problem-solving tech.

Open Banking shows the way – an API-based infrastructure giving startups and others the freedom to solve consumer problems. APIs should play an important part in bereavement – things will really be motoring when a death is confirmed, ID / fraud checks take place, banks are informed and accounts are closed digitally, securely, accurately and quickly through APIs.

Closed, proprietary solutions stifle innovation, which is bad for consumers. Industry and government need to think openly. How about an ‘Open Bereavement’ protocol to bring the Open Banking model to the death space?

Innovation in the bereavement sector is gradually becoming a talking point. #deathtech is kind of a thing. But considering half a million people die in the UK every year, it remains drastically under-discussed. I hope conversations increase, and happen in the open. Openness by default engenders trust and collaboration, which is good for business.

Some solicitors will resist moves to digital because they charge by the letter. They’re not focused on solving their clients’ problems, so they’ll be left behind. Other solicitors and probate providers, along with banks, building societies, utilities, share registrars and, most of all, families, want to see these problems solved.

I’m no economist, but I suspect the nation’s finances would be healthier without a mountain of paper-based inefficiency at the heart of a £1 billion+ industry. No doubt modernisation fits with government’s drive towards digital.

Hopefully conversations and innovations will ramp up, now that Open Banking, online grants and the Death Notification Service have opened minds and pushed the digitising death door very slightly ajar.

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