Jeff PrestridgeMar 1 2022

More sensitivity is needed from pension providers

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More sensitivity is needed from pension providers

The mother of a dear friend died recently. I arrived 20 minutes after her death and waited patiently for the doctor to turn up and confirm the obvious – that she was no longer with us.

It took a little longer for the kindly people from Co-op Funeralcare to ring the doorbell and take her away. I watched as they showed her the utmost of respect. "Hello, my lovely," one of them said. Dignity when it was needed. I was moved to tears.

When death arrived, it was a blessing. Over the previous week Lee had stopped eating. A hospital bed was installed in her front room and a syringe driver was put in her arm through which morphine was dripped into her. It did not stop all the pain – she had lung cancer – but her daughter Leonie was on hand to help when needed. She was painfully thin when she died. Death was a relief.

Although everyone who came to care for Lee in her last days was kindly, the care provided was, at best, patchy. Indeed, the care package put together for her was not agreed until two days after she died. Leonie was not impressed.

Dying at home was better than at hospital, but only a hospice would have given Lee the stellar palliative care she desperately needed – and in many ways deserved. Sadly, hospice beds in an area covering Wokingham (where Lee lived), Newbury and Reading (desperately wanting to be a city) are as rare as hen’s teeth. Eight beds in total.

This is a disgrace that the government should be addressing as a priority. Surely, if the government is serious about providing a care system for the elderly that is fit for purpose, more funding should be made available to these wonderful institutions. The hospice sector should not be dependent upon charitable donations in order to carry out its caring work.

In the wake of her mother’s death, Leonie has had nothing but praise for the financial institutions that looked after Lee’s finances – the Nationwides and Santanders of this world. Bereavement counselling was offered at every twist and turn. The Co-op is also playing a blinder after Leonie asked them to sort out probate. Although not cheap, it has taken a weight off her mind.

Financial institutions are more sensitive than they used to be around issues of death (NatWest was great when my dad died nearly five years ago). I always remember receiving a letter from a reader when I was at The Sunday Telegraph back in the 1990s; she enclosed correspondence sent to her late husband from his bank with his name followed by the word ‘deceased’ in brackets.

Yet there is room for improvement. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the area of pensions and the early payment of death benefit in the event of terminal illness. To cut to the chase, people in the last months of their lives (or more precisely, loved ones acting on their behalf) are being asked to jump through hoops in order to have their pension commuted and paid straight away (tax-free if aged under 75). Money that can be used to meet care costs or make good lost income.

I was recently contacted about this issue by Doug Brodie, founder of Chancery Lane, a business that specialises in retirement income planning.

He recently intervened in the case of a terminally ill man whose wife was trying to access his pension early so that there would be money available to pay for his funeral – he only had days to live. She had turned to Macmillan Cancer Support in despair – a charity Brodie offers his expertise to when needed.

Brodie told her about the right to commute her husband’s pension. But after she approached her husband’s pension company, its response (through outsourced administrators that make sloths seem like greyhounds) was to send her a 14-page form for her husband to complete and sign, including a request for him to do a lifetime allowance calculation.

Not surprisingly, Brodie was outraged. Thankfully, within two days, through a co-ordinated email and social media blitz, he managed to get the pension commuted and the payment made to the wife – a day before her husband died.

Although the right outcome in this instance, Brodie believes pension companies and administrators need to do much more to improve the service they provide when dealing with people looking to commute a pension on terminal illness grounds.

For example, trained personnel should be on hand to help people through the process and documentation needs to be more user friendly. Pension providers should also make people more aware that such a pension commutation exists in the event of terminal illness.

Brodie is spot on. Pension providers need to raise the bar and for once show their sensitive side.

Rest in peace Lee.

Jeff Prestridge is personal finance and wealth editor of the Mail on Sunday