Death administration post COVID: changing attitudes, policy, and practice

Exploring people’s understanding and experiences of carrying out death administration tasks in the UK.

Someone sat a lone in front of laptop

In summer 2022, researchers from the Sheffield Methods Institute completed a short research project with the National Bereavement Service exploring people’s understanding and experiences of carrying out death administration in the UK. The term ‘death administration’ is used here to refer to the range of tasks which must be completed after a loved one has died, such as registering a death and notifying officials. The research team carried out online interviews with 21 (mostly White, middle-class) individuals (18 women, 3 men), with an age range of 20-73 years. As a pilot project, the overall aim was to offer insight into the challenges faced by those navigating death administration processes, tentatively suggest areas for improvement, and inform future research in this field.

Key Findings

Research participants frequently described feeling overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of death administration. This was made worse by the need to be extremely organised and lucid at a time when they felt most vulnerable. Individuals reported spending a significant amount of time trying to work with professionals from a range of authorities, including banks, private companies, and state departments. There was often a lack of clarity over what to do and who to contact, with time
restrictions causing additional stress. Those with lower internet literacy or limited access to a computer found the reliance on online systems particularly problematic.

Another common complaint related to the ways in which companies were often unwilling to engage with the Will executor, continuing to address communication to the deceased person. Such experiences were very distressing.

Some people you’d phone, and they just didn’t know how to deal with the fact that somebody had died. They wouldn’t even say that they were sorry or have any compassion whatsoever.

Study participant

Death Administration Research Project

Experiences were better when individuals were dealing with staff specifically trained in bereavement. There was general lack of training evident in staff they encountered. Overall, therefore, there was a strong sense of frustration towards ineffective and ill-prepared services.

Participants shared significant concern regarding the financial implications of death administration. Most people hired a solicitor, despite the cost, because the process as a whole was too complex and they were fearful of getting it wrong. They expressed particular concern about accessing the deceased person’s funds after their death, reporting that companies would often request payment regardless of the probate/financial situation of those bereaved. This is despite many people mentioning that it took far longer to access funds than payment deadlines allowed. Although an executor was officially appointed in most cases, the varying tasks were often distributed between family members. While the death of a relative often brought conflicted families closer together, other times it pushed them further apart. This made it more difficult to complete some tasks, such as funeral planning, and led in some cases to disputes over inheritance. As such, there was great variation in the social, emotional and financial resources that individuals had to carry out death administration.

Key Implications for Practice:

• People who are bereaved need more support with death administration, including additional
provision for those with reduced technological capacity
• Staff ideally need training in ways to handle cases of bereavement with clarity and sensitivity
• People who are bereaved need signposting to any relevant support that is available, be it emotional, financial, or organisational assistance
• Steps to simplify death administration processes would be beneficial, including more consistency across organisations and increased transparency of what is required

Research conducted by Professor Kate Reed, Sheffield Methods Institute, and Dr Anna Balazs, University of St Andrews.
Report written by Dr Laura Towers, Sheffield Methods Institute. 

Read the full report.

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