as appeared in The Sunday Times, 16 September 2018
When death isn’t the end of pain. When a loved one dies, the heartache is brutal enough. But many families have their grief compounded when banks and financial institutions close accounts or refuse to pay out money of those who have passed away. Billy Rule reports for The Sunday Times.
IN that moment of fear when panic clutched her heart and Samara Deeg realised her husband could die she, of course, tried to save his life. Flinging herself on to the kitchen floor she started CPR. But, almost instantly, two things went through her mind. Oh my God, he’s already dead, I can feel it, he’s left us. The next thing she sensed was that she was being watched. She glanced up and locked her stare with two sets of eyes, both as wide as saucers. And through those young eyes she read what was clicking over in the fragile minds of her sons — Mitchell, 11, and Dylan, eight. They were comprehending what was taking place in front of them. That their dad, Klae, who had suddenly collapsed, was dying.
Only moments before, on December 28 last year, Dylan had been with his father in the kitchen of their home in the semi-rural suburb of Woodridge, 80km north of Perth. As they were making breakfast Klae, 41, dropped to the floor and never regained consciousness — a victim of acute cardiac failure. For some reason, the heart of the man who was the heartbeat of the Deeg family just stopped. “The air was different that day,” Samara recalls. “It was horrible, yes, but this calmness also came over me. Something that I can’t explain but it was like Klae was with me, helping me keep calm in a crisis.” She continued doing CPR until an ambulance arrived but, “I knew in my heart that Klae was gone”.
After a funeral and much grieving the trio did their best to move forward without their “rock” —Samara making it her goal to try and settle back into the rhythm of life as quickly as possible. But that’s when the hurdles appeared.
“The banks were the worst,” Samara says. “Klae had two businesses, so I was using Klae’s logon details to keep everything going, just paying bills and paying staff and things like that. “Then I tried to log on one day and it wouldn’t let me. So I rang and explained the situation and they said, ‘Come in tomorrow’. “The next day I walked in to the bank and a lady sat me down in an open area and got me to fill in forms declaring that Klae had passed away. “Then she pretty much proceeded to say, ‘All of the accounts in your husband’s name with the businesses have now been frozen and you have no access to them’. And I said, ‘That means I have no access to any money’. “She said, ‘Yes, I suppose so’. And I said, ‘What happens to the mortgage?’ And she said, ‘Well, act this stage you’ll still have to pay, but if you’re having financial problems then you’ll have to apply for financial hardship’. “And this was all in an open bank area with other people about and within three weeks of Klae passing. “I couldn’t believe what she was telling me. My world had just been ripped apart and every question I asked she couldn’t give me an answer. She said, ‘Oh, I have to check with over east and they’ve gone home now’. “So I got out of there. I just had to leave. I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do? I’ve got these businesses with people who need to be paid. I’ve got bills to pay, a mortgage to pay, dinner to get that night’. Life had to go on. I was freaking out.”
The next day Samara encountered just as much frustration when dealing with bank staff on the east coast, saying: “They talk to you like your dog’s died. It’s just methodical. “The thing is I had the money. I could have lived, I could have kept everything going and we could have been OK. But they shut me down.”
TWO years before Klae’s shock death, financial adviser Donna Lee Powell was standing with her two children when she watched in shock as lifeguards brought her unconscious husband, Brett, to shore during the Busselton Ironman. The seemingly fit, healthy 39-year-old couldn’t be revived and he passed away in front of his distraught young family.The couple had been childhood sweethearts and Donna felt lost without him. “I couldn’t even drive, I wasn’t up to it,” she remembers. “When we eventually went back to Perth I had to sit in the back seat holding my kids.”
As she attempted to move forward, she was frustrated with the complications involved in trying to wind up an estate, including accessing superannuation and insurance benefits. The worst came the day before Christmas. “We got an email on Christmas Eve (2015) from an insurance company saying they were refusing to pay out an accidental death policy,” Donna says. “People can be so insensitive at times.” Having been in the finance industry for 20 years, Donna was eventually able to overcome the administrative and emotional hurdles. But that’s because she was prepared — something she says, “most people don’t get around to doing. Brett and I did, but when he died, I still had problems with the insurance company — and this is all when you’re grieving and trying to be there for your kids.” She adds: “No one wants to talk about wills and estate planning. But having a will in place, having some life insurance . . . it’s so important. It’s not just older people who die.” Her experience motivated her to refocus her business, DLP Life Design, on helping widows manage the financial responsibilities thrust upon them when their partner dies.
And someone who came to her for help was Samara Deeg. “In Sam’s situation, her husband was the sole director of the company — Klae owned the company outright,” Donna says. “So, even though Sam was married to him, she had no legal rights, until the probate process was completed. This can take up to six months. “They also didn’t have a will — and this is more common than you would think — so Klae died
intestate, which means it’s left up to the courts to decide who gets money.
“In regard to the banks, they have to do what is legally required. But it’s just the way they go about it that’s incorrect.” Someone who shares that assessment is Christine Richardson from The Grief Centre of Western Australia. Christine co-founded the organisation in 2007 to help support people manage their grief after losing a loved one. Her aim was to provide a holistic pathway for partners or families as they try to move forward.
What she didn’t expect was grief being compounded as people tried to deal with insensitive banks, financial institutions, insurance agencies, superannuation funds, government departments, telcos and utility providers.
She rolls off examples such as the mother whose 20-year-old son passed away who “was treated like a
thief” when she tried to sort out his superannuation; the woman who became homeless because she wasn’t aware of Centrelink bereavement payments she was entitled to; the parents who weren’t allowed to close their late daughter’s bank accounts; the lady who went down south to get over her husband’s death only to discover her bank accounts had been shut down, leaving her without money. “It’s relentless,” she says. “How can these places still mismanage bereavement? It’s not as if this is the first time they’re dealing with families of someone who has died.
“And, because of the way people are being treated, it means they’re even more traumatised. “It’s all very well to say, ‘You need to be financially educated’, but that’s going to be slow because, for example, no one thinks they’re going to lose their 20-year-old son. It’s not in their headspace. “Sure, we can educate, but what we need is policy change.”
Donna suggests something like a portal or a website where you only have to enter your details once. “It’s the Government who should act first — both State and Federal,” she says. “If they set up their infrastructure where there is some type of ecosystem where all the information is linked, something like the MyGov set-up. “Then people could give permission to the Government to release information to the life insurance companies, superannuation funds, the banks and the utilities, so they can access the death certificate, coroner’s report and probate as required. “It should be streamlined and interlinked. At the moment the process is complicated and confusing. It doesn’t need to be.” Donna also stresses the importance of sensitivity. “Institutions need to segregate these types of services into departments where staff are well trained with the requirements expected, take a commonsense approached to outcomes and are sensitive to people who are grieving,” she says.
ANOTHER person who’s seen the insensitivity of the institutions is prominent lawyer John Hammond. And, from his experience, it’s those at a fragile age who are usually in the firing line. “The banks have shown a total lack of care and compassion for the elderly trying to organise accounts or access funds when their partner dies,” he says. “It desperately needs to change. “Banks are making life difficult for elderly people,” he says. “Many of them don’t have current passports or a driver’s licence, which are a vital part of the identification process. “Because of a lack of identification in the form required by banks, the elderly are put through unnecessary anguish. They need to be afforded more leniency.” Like Donna and Christine, Hammond believes the legislation needs an empathy injection. “Elderly people should be given the option of producing a simple statutory declaration,” he says. “Make it a form available at the bank, or the chemist or online that sets out their circumstances and what has happened. This one
document should be enough. After all, it’s a crime to lie in a stat dec.”
Comprehensive change doesn’t appear to be on the Government’s agenda, but when contacted by The Sunday Times, Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg — who is overseeing the financial services portfolio — highlighted the rigour they have recently introduced. “Following a request by the Coalition Government, the Australian Banking Association in consultation with the Australian Competition and Investments Commission (ASIC) updated the terms of the Banking Code of Practice to . . . clarify consumer expectations with respect to handling deceased estates,” he said. “Additionally, ASIC is placing staff within the big four banks as well as AMP to monitor governance and compliance of these organisations, including how they handle disputes with their customers.
“The Government recently legislated to create the Australian Financial Complaints Authority which (from November 1) will allow all financial complaints . . . to be centralised with a single scheme, thereby reducing consumer confusion.”
Christine Richardson and Donna Lee Powell will continue to lobby governments for change but, in the meantime, they are holding a seminar to help those who find themselves fumbling through the financial fog after losing a loved one. “It’s got to the stage where we have to hold an information night,” Christine says. “We want people to understand that if someone dies after they’ve turned 18 there is going to be complex financial expectations whether you’re ready for them or not.”
Donna adds: “Yes, people need to be educated so they’re aware of what they might have to go through.It’s complex. It shouldn’t be, but it is.” Christine has proof that the process can be made easier. “The Water Corp, for example, completely overhauled their bereavement system,” she says. “We started talking to them four years ago and they actually heard us. They have bereavement staff, they have staff trained to look after the estate. It’s all part of their training now. They’re getting it right.”
Water Corporation’s customer and community general manager, Catherine Ferrari, confirmed the effort they made for those going through grief. “In recent years we’ve spent a lot of time understanding our customers’ needs,” she says. “(This) helped us redesign our processes to make it easier for (grieving) customers to deal with us. We (wanted to) look at these issues through their eyes. “In these circumstances we can appoint a case manager, so someone experiencing bereavement can have one point of contact to help make any changes needed. “We have also simplified the process by providing customers with immediate access to manage billing, payments or financial hardship queries regarding the account still in the deceased’s name, without the need to provide an authorisation, such as probate.”
A more streamlined system would have helped Samara Deeg, who breaks down when she retells the roundabouts she had to navigate. “There were things I had to deal with that make me so cross,” she says.
“It just shouldn’t be like that. And it shocked me. Your local bank branch should know what to do. They should take you into a private room and say, ‘Right, this is what’s going to happen’. I walked out of there not knowing what was going to happen and I was freaking out. “A week later I went to get the kids’ stuff for school: books, shoes and all that — and had my card declined. They’d cancelled my card because I was the secondary card holder. No one had told me. “So I had two kids looking at me with these big eyes thinking, ‘What’s going on here, mum? Are we OK?’” Filling out countless forms and being put in the phone queue for financial hardship instead of dealing with specialist bereavement staff almost broke Samara. “I’ve yelled at so many people because I’m just so angry act explaining my situation 10 million
times,” she says. “You know when you go, ‘Just for a minute, think if this happened to you and where your levels of being reasonable are’. “They just wanted forms filled out, and information from you that is so invasive many times over and over. I was really stressed about the mortgage. I spoke to this one lady and said, ‘You know, you never made me feel like you were going to put my mortgage on hold, you made me feel like it was an application and that it was never a given’. “When they finally did put the mortgage on hold they had a valuer come over and he was taking pictures of my house before he even came in. And then when he came in he casually says, ‘Oh, so you’re refinancing, are you?’ And I launched into him, I said ‘NO!!’ “There was no empathy training. None.”
With the help of Donna, Samara has been able to break free of the financial fog and, last week, a day before her birthday, the first one without Klae, a life insurance policy was finally approved.
Samara adds: “If I didn’t have Donna I don’t know where I would be. I am deadly serious. I probably would have given up. I wouldn’t be where I am. Because I felt so supported by Donna, from the first time I spoke with her.”
The Sunday Times rang the Australian Banking Association and then emailed questions, but there was no reply to those questions.
Picture: Richard Hatherly
Families Left Without Money After Loved Ones Pass Away
PERTHNOW.COM.AU SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, 2018 NEWS 23
The WA Grief Centre seminar is on Nov 14.