After a death, bank accounts must be closed or transferred, utilities cancelled and assets sold. The practicalities of bereavement have changed little in 100 years.

Those past 100 years have seen staggering change for consumers (living ones) in terms of how we can access money, handle transactions, confirm our identity and enter into agreements. Thanks to Open Banking, I can download an app which allows me to manage my accounts across multiple banks. I can open an account and pay in a cheque with a couple of photos. I can complete transactions and apply for loans online. I can renew my passport, insure my car and pay tax digitally.

Has probate been similarly revolutionised? Sadly not. The infrastructure of death in the UK is relatively unchanged. Once a consumer dies, their relatives lose the digital opportunities available to the living and are faced with a lengthy, paper-based, manual process, with banks operating in silos (meaning lots of duplicated effort).

This often means: paying for multiple paper copies of a death certificate and sending them off by post; filling in a different form for every bank by hand; visiting a local bank branch and bringing paper ID; passing through metal detectors in a court building to swear an oath; multiple phone calls to chase things up; a total lack of visibility of progress; almost nothing available digitally.

“Change is like a glacier”, as someone from the probate service once said to me. But change is surely on the horizon, because innovation happens when there are clear problems to be solved, the technology to solve them and the commercial opportunity — and I’m certain there are all three.

The problem is that for relatives and their representatives (solicitors etc), the manual, paper-based process is stressful, difficult, time-consuming and inefficient. The lack of visibility and efficiency causes frustration for families at a time of heightened sensitivity.

The technology includes electronic registration of death, Open Banking, APIs and digital ID / fraud solutions.

The commercial opportunity is that over half a million people die in the UK every year, with billions of pounds inherited annually. But for banks, the paper trail, manual processes, call-handling and siloed approaches results in every death costing them money, poor customer service and lost opportunities for customer retention. This is much a problem for the financial sector as it is for families.

Glimmers of change

Recent years have seen small changes. By May 2018, 2,871 applications for grant had been made online via HM Courts & Tribunal Service’s new digital grant application service. This service isn’t yet available to everyone (for example, it’s not an option if there’s no will), and paper documents like the will and death certificate still have to be sent by post.

In June 2018, the Death Notification Service launched. The British Bankers’ Association asked share registrars Equiniti to set it up, and the big banks pay Equiniti to run it. It’s a way for relatives to inform multiple banks of a death in one go – a sort of ‘Tell Us Once’ for the private sector. The relative fills out a form online, digital checks are made, data is sent sent to the member institutions, and each makes a search for the deceased’s accounts (some manually, some with a degree of automation.) Then, it’s over to each bank to run their own bereavement processes – that means, as usual, their own closure form, families sending documents by post, a different threshold for the grant of representation depending on banking group, and so on.

The DNS is therefore the small tip of a big iceberg. Its closed approach is a disappointment – it’s not overtly a system upon which third parties can build services via APIs (contrast the infrastructure of Open Banking, which openly encourages integration and innovation). That said, Equiniti appears genuinely keen to engage with third parties, so perhaps there are opportunities. And I’m not a fan of its UI. Nevertheless, small steps in a glacial industry deserve applause – they take effort, commitment and collaboration. The DNS is a positive step and a vital opening of a door – it’s proof that banks are thinking about the problems of bereavement and are willing to work together to start solving them, without having to be forced by government.

Stifling innovation and customer experience

The probate industry is fragmented. 9 out of 10 providers are high street solicitors. There are a handful of providers trying to break the mould for the better for families, but everyone is working on top of the same outdated architecture. It’s hard to innovate digitally when paper documents have to be shuffled about by post, or to disrupt when constantly butting up against an antiquated infrastructure. The most common complaints against probate specialists are delays and communication, but this is in part the fault of the systems underpinning death in the UK.

This is bad for bereaved families. They deserve innovation, design thinking and a disrupted marketplace – there lies the solutions to problems and significant commercial opportunities. This can only happen on a suitable scale if there’s a concerted effort to modernise the way death is handled in the UK.

Vulnerable users

The problems dealing with a deceased person’s assets are mirrored in other areas. Attorneys acting a lasting power of attorney face similarly lengthy, paper-based processes, often causing delays, stress and financial difficulty at a hugely sensitive time. Digital solutions for these vulnerable customers are intertwined with those for personal representatives of a deceased.

Continue to part 2.