Sunday, June 23, 2024

EXCLUSIVE: ‘One last thing…’ – Settld in ‘The Fintech Magazine’

As Benjamin Franklin said, there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. There are plenty of digital solutions to help with the latter; why has financial technology taken so long to address the first? That same question occurred to the founders of Settld

In a year when the world mourned, frustration and distress caused by the financial admin surrounding a loved-one’s death was amplified.

Never an easy process in the UK, the circumstances of the pandemic shone an uncomfortable light on the lack of standardised processes and the absence of digital technology for unravelling the affairs of the deceased.

On average, each of us leaves behind 15 to 20 accounts – from those held with banks and insurers to utility companies and subscriptions we forgot we had. For too many people who go through the time-consuming and sometimes emotionally-fraught task of terminating or transferring them, delays caused by manual systems, insensitive communications and difficulty in contacting the right department, add  to their grief. So much so, that more than 92,000 people have now signed an online petition calling for change – which could be achieved by using technology to help deliver a more compassionate, efficient response to the one event that none of us will escape.

The petition to persuade government to introduce a Bereavement Standard for commercial services providers, making it easier to close the accounts of someone who has died, was started by mother and daughter Julie and Vicky Wilson in response to difficulties they faced in sorting out the affairs of Vicky’s grandmother, June, who died in 2019.

“I couldn’t understand how it could be so inefficient,” says Vicky. “We just got cross – really cross.”

But, while most people grit their teeth and battle the system, the Wilsons’ frustration was funnelled into a solution – Settld, a Cloud-based, automated end-of-life service that incorporates both a B2B and a B2C element because, as they discovered, probate lawyers and other bereavement service professionals don’t have a hotline to account providers.

“We wanted to offer a free consumer dashboard because every family has to be supported,” says Vicky. “But probate professionals and local authorities (when they are responsible for someone’s affairs), face exactly the same problems. There is usually no better channel for them.

“Some banks do have a portal, but most organisations have to write to an email address or pick up the phone, so it made sense for us to start Settld with a commercial focus.”

The dashboard for lawyers and others has been running successfully over Settld’s platform since late 2020, with a consumer portal launched this year.

The biggest challenge that needs to be addressed is interoperability, says Settld’s chief developer Pierre Martin, which is why it’s developing a Bereavement API.

“When we started talking to all the industry service providers (banks, insurers, utilities, etc), we quickly realised they were each operating in a vacuum, with their own tech stacks. From there, we started to identify lowest common denominators, cross-industry, so that service providers could adopt both a tool and a process standard that would allow organisations to communicate together in a unified fashion,” says Pierre.

“Ideally, you want operations and exchanges between systems, unifying protocols and processes.”

While that is still a work in progress, and not in the gift of any one solutions provider, Settld’s secure platform is already a big step towards solving a problem that affects hundreds of thousands of people a year.

The platform employs Onfido document, identification and facial biometrics verification to address one of the key issues in account settlement: secure identification. It analyses the face on a government identity document, such as a driver’s licence or passport, and compares it to a freshly-captured photo or video.

Settld’s B2B tool brings together all the necessary documents, with details of accounts to be closed and other relevant information, such as what is happening to any property, which is particularly relevant to utility companies and insurers. Notifications are automatically generated, embedded with the required attachments and sent to the service provider. Users can then check progress via their dashboard.

“So, rather than having to jump on calls, our users have ongoing tracking,” says Vicky. “The lawyers we talk to

need to find ways of lowering account management costs as more players start entering the market, offering grant of probate at a fixed price.”

Settld, which operates a software-as-a-service model, charges on a per-case basis and the architecture is designed to scale – potentially into case management on its business-facing platform, and by introducing a marketplace of related end-of-life services for consumers.

Alongside the product build, Settld and the charity Cruse Bereavement Care co-founded a Bereavement Standard Working Group to understand how best to help organisations and government improve the account settlement process. One key component is the request for a Bereavement API, which  ‘will effectively be open banking for bereavement to facilitate the push of information’, says Pierre. Or, in other words, a green-shoot example of open finance – the logical sum of APIs plus open banking applied to all the areas of our lives that intersect with finance and which, in this case, provides a turnkey solution to a demonstrable need.

The COVID spotlight

Bereaved families’ experience of dealing with banks in particular worsened after lockdown, according to Which?

In a report published in February 2021, it said that while the process of closing a deceased loved-one’s account took longer than three months for one-in-six people pre-pandemic, after the crisis hit, that was true for a quarter of them.

Lost paperwork, inconsiderate responses and automated systems that insist on writing to someone who has died are the last things a family needs when struggling with the emotional aftermath of their loss. And, for some, having a relative’s or friend’s funds locked up for months causes real financial distress.

Banks are aware of the problems, says Vicky. “They know consumers are suffering and they know having a cross-industry solution makes a lot of sense. The majority of organisations care, but, pre-COVID, these processes didn’t have the priority that perhaps they should have had.”

The pandemic has certainly been a wake-up call for banks, insurers and others. Well over 100 of their representatives attended events organised by the Bereavement Standard Working Group last year to discuss the issue. In fact, Vicky says they were overwhelmed by the supportive response from financial services and Settld is currently talking to one organisation about a white-label solution for its clients.

The need for a Bereavement Standard has now been taken up by MPs, who this month called on the minister responsible to not only urgently introduce the Standard, but also make the most crucial document in the whole end-of-life settlement process – the death certificate – legally valid in digital form.

The public sector already has the equivalent of a Settld dashboard – the Tell Us Once online service for notifying local authorities and national government departments of the loss of a loved one. That doesn’t stop what one MP described as ‘clumsy mistakes’ – automated systems that write to the deceased, informing them that they do not qualify for a benefit because they have died, being one of them.

Failure to share information across departments is not confined to the public sector and it won’t be solved by a single platform in the private sector, either. But Settld has at least prodded their conscience.


 

This article was published in The Fintech Magazine #19, Page 52-53

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