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With mobile carriers, even dying is a hassle

By Claes Bell ·
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Posted: 4 pm ET

The death of a loved one often means equal parts grief and red tape, and mobile phone providers are just one more bureaucracy when it comes to canceling accounts for the deceased.

© Robert Hoetink/

Sprint customer Dan Ronan found that out the hard way. When his father-in-law died, he contacted his mobile carrier, Sprint, to cancel the account. The customer service rep on the other side of the line was confused at first, but came up with a solution -- if Ronan would agree to pay a $100 "early termination fee," he would close the account.

When Ronan refused to pay the fee, the Sprint rep left him on a lengthy hold. After returning, the rep said that Sprint would waive the fee if Ronan could produce a copy of the death certificate. Ronan questioned whether that was necessary, and after a 10-day runaround that included many pitches for new products and a comically long chat session with a Sprint rep, the matter finally appears to be resolved. But Ronan came away with the sense that Sprint personnel were unprepared to deal with the situation.

"I don't understand how they can be so unresponsive," Ronan says. "They don't seem to be very concerned about making this as easy as possible."

It seems, at minimum, unkind to put surviving family members through this kind of rigmarole. But Ronan's experience is consistent with how subscription services handle deceased accountholders in at least one respect: they usually require a copy of the death certificate to cancel the account, says Chuck Marshall, a consumer advocate and attorney with the Marshall Law Firm in Walnut Creek, Calif.

"While it is understandable if people get upset when a wireless carrier demands a death certificate -- it seems insensitive -- it is also a fairly reasonable request as a fraud prevention measure, and not out of step with other industries," Marshall says. "That being said, the real problem arises when such a policy meets the aggressive tactics of the carrier's customer retention center or plain old incompetence."

Marshall says he's heard horror stories about "customers faxing in death certificates multiple times, repeated promises to cancel after repeated billing, or customer service reps pressing too hard for proof of death on grief stricken customers who simply do not have the facilities to deal with the machine in the same way as someone does on their best day."

Marshall advises surviving family to expect to have multiple death certificate copies ready to resolve old accounts.

"As you go down the list of assets and liabilities that need to be changed or cancelled, you can be assured that nearly every company involved will want proof of the death," he says.

What do you think? Should mobile phone providers require a death certificate to close a deceased person's account? Have you ever had a similar experience?

Follow me on Twitter: @ClaesBell.

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August 13, 2014 at 11:24 pm

What is the big deal, send a death certificate and it is a done deal. How many people in this world can be trusted when they call and say "oh yeah, cancel that account because they are dead"? Not many in my book. Too many will say anything to cheat the system. Owe money, play dead. Don't want to pay a ticket, play dead. Don't want to honor a contract, play dead.

August 13, 2014 at 11:09 pm

if Ronan would agree to pay a $100 "early termination fee," he would close the account.

"No problem, just let me give the new address of the account holder, so you can mail him the bill. I don't remember all of it, but I do know it's plot 3843."

August 13, 2014 at 9:54 pm

Even though some states do not require an obituary to be posted it is a legal notification to those with debt to file any claims against the estate. If the family member that dies is the sole responsible person on the account, you can give the mobile carrier, and other creditors the courtesy of telling them about the death and the name of the paper the obituary is posted in when canceling the account, if posted.
Death certificates are needed for financial institutions, Insurance companies, etc. Close all bank accounts in the deceased name as soon as possible, especially if joint account.
The best option of course is to hire a professional executor of the estate and let them take care of dealing with creditors and revolving accounts, while you attend to other important issues.

August 13, 2014 at 9:25 pm

I had the very same experience with Sprint almost 8 years ago. My late husband had a company phone and we were paying for just the data plan on the phone. After talking with everyone on the shift...and then some...I flat out had to say pull up his phone number...they did and saw that the line was on a company account. I explained I do not have control of the phone...because the company had it. I told them that I refused to pay the 'Early Termination Fee of $350.00' because it was just for data. We went round and round (over two months!). I finally wrote a letter to the CEO and asked who I could contact to collect my husbands "early termination fee". I begged him to release me from the contract and provided an original death certificate. ($15.00) Never once did anyone from Sprint ask me to provide one, I did just to prove that he was really gone! I eventually was released from the contract and the original death certificate was mailed back to me (months later) Thank God that ordeal is over. It was very emotional and painful to deal with!

August 13, 2014 at 7:12 pm

More like "lawyer" bob. What an idiot

August 13, 2014 at 6:42 pm

lawyerbob, doesn't the contract expire if you expire? Maybe we should be asking that question when and if we renew a cell phone plan. The contract for most are because you are getting a lower price for the cell phone, what if you give the phone back?

August 13, 2014 at 6:38 pm

I do not think asking for a copy of a Death Certificate is an unreasonable request. Hopefully they don't want an original they cost $10 - $15 dollars each, but a copy will probably cost you around 5 cents at a copy place or if you have a scanner/printer make your own. I know what it is like to deal with a death at the time everything seems to be against you, but truly just send a copy and be done with it Banks want copies also as do Insurance Companies some of those want ORIGINALS. Be glad it is just a copy they want.

August 13, 2014 at 6:30 pm

A contract is a contract, even if you are dead.