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Bereaved relatives’ grief compounded by unsympathetic firms

When Linda Bullamore’s husband, Steve, passed away, she was left struggling to change many of the bills in his name. “It was a real inconvenience at that time in particular,” she recalls. “With me needing to make lots of calls and lots of people trying to contact me.”

She is just one of many bereaved relatives across the UK who have found the trauma of losing a loved one compounded by difficulties communicating with phone, TV, broadband and utility firms, facing difficulties closing accounts, unsympathetic staff and unexpected and unfair bills.

Guardian writer George Monbiot’s column last month about the problems he had dealing with Vodafone following the death of his mother prompted a wave of responses on Twitter from others who had similarly poor experiences with the telecoms company.

However, charities that support grieving relatives say such stories are common across the banking, utilities and tech sectors, with new research from the bereavement admin service Settld naming BT, TV Licensing and NS&I (National Savings and Investments) among the worst.


BT was one of the firms that Bullamore struggled with after losing her husband in 2020. She wanted to cancel a BT Sport package he had renewed shortly before his death, but was told she had to continue paying for a further 18 months.

After pursuing a complaint, she was eventually allowed to exit the contract early, and the extra charges were cancelled. “It was very unpleasant,” the 62-year-old from Buckinghamshire recalls. “They weren’t particularly helpful or sympathetic, or even particularly listening to what I was saying.”

Bullamore also struggled to change their family contract with Tesco Mobile to her name, and was temporarily left with a different phone number. “They said: ‘That’s breaking the contract, you can’t do that, and anyway we need to speak to the policyholder before we can do that’ … That had me in tears – it was really upsetting. Tesco just didn’t have a clue.”

The Settld research is based on a survey of nearly 3,000 people last month who were asked to share their experiences with companies after the death of a loved one. As well as highlighting poor service, it also found firms that had excelled in handling inquiries, including Lloyds Bank, Santander and Nationwide.

There are clearly caveats to such surveys: they are not scientific exercises, and huge organisations such as BT, NS&I and TV Licensing will arguably have more unhappy customers than smaller players.

However, big companies would do well to take such findings seriously. Stuart Lewis, chief executive of the over-50s website Rest Less, points out that there are big rewards for those that handle bereavement well. “If dealt with in a sensitive and caring fashion, it can create an unwavering customer loyalty for the long term,” he says.

“However, if done badly or if specialist training around this key area is ignored, not only are companies adding to the emotional distress that vulnerable people are going through, they also risk reputational damage.”

A BT spokesperson said: “We’re really sorry that Mrs Bullamore’s experience was not up to the high standards we strive to provide our customers.”

BT has reviewed its bereavement processes over the last 18 months, creating a dedicated team and says it now accepts notifications from friends as well as family members, resulting in a decline in the number of complaints. It has chosen to work directly in an arrangement with a death notification service called Life Ledger, although it still accepts notifications from other service providers, including Settld.

A spokesperson for Tesco said: “We would like to sincerely apologise to Mrs Bullamore for any distress caused.” It said it followed its bereavement policy, which is to close the entire account and move other subscribers to pay as you go contracts.

A spokesperson for TV Licensing said: “We recognise that when someone has passed away it is a difficult time and we try to make it as simple as possible to inform us.”

An NS&I spokesperson said: “Due to Covid-19, our customers experienced some delays in 2021, for which we apologise. We had returned our customer service response times back to normal levels by autumn 2021.”

This article was amended on 10 August 2022 because an earlier version erroneously described Life Ledger as a not-for-profit organisation. It was further amended on 18 August 2022 to clarify that although BT has a direct arrangement with Life Ledger, it does still accept notifications from Settld and others.