How do I get T-Mobile to stop billing my dead friend?

Question: My friend Adam died March 3. He was disabled and lived with my family.

I called T-Mobile to notify it the day after his death. I was told that since he had no contract and was paying monthly that his account would simply cancel out for non-payment.

They would not accept my information about his death because I was not on his account. The next month another bill arrived, and it was larger. I called again. This happened for three months.

Finally, a customer service representative told me that I had to write a letter to their customer relations department and explain the situation. I did, and I sent a copy of his obituary with the letter.

I was sent a letter from them that said I had been added to his account without my request or permission, and that they would be sending a final bill for his estate to settle. I had explained in the letter that he was disabled and had left no estate.

After another month of billing, the invoice was up to $98 for a service that cost him less than $20 a month. I repeatedly called customer service, tried calling the customer relations department and was told very firmly that they never took phone calls and I could send a letter if I needed to contact them.

They sent me back to customer service, and I was told that only a certified death certificate was acceptable to prove death, and that if I wanted to do that I would have to contact the state, pay a $15 fee plus postage, wait several weeks, and send it to them.

I am not, nor have I ever been, responsible for this bill. The customer service person did not deny it when I asked if they just keep running up these bills and then take a large deduction for taxes from writing them off. This is, in my opinion consumer fraud.

I worry about the other people that are being forced to pay bills for services that were never rendered – in his case the service was totally suspended after the first non-payment.

This is wrong, and I need your help to resolve it and remove that bill. No one is going to pay it and there is no one responsible for it. Thank you for whatever you can do to help. I really appreciate it. — Merry Bauman, Peck, Kan.

Answer: My condolences on your loss. T-Mobile should have canceled Adam’s phone service as soon as you sent it evidence of his death. It should have made the process as easy as possible — not a frustrating series of emails and phone calls that ended with his bill growing more than fivefold.

As far as I can tell, T-Mobile doesn’t directly address the issue of a customer’s death directly on its website. But it offers a few clues. In a section that deals with early termination fees — those are the annoying surcharges imposed when you exit your contract before its term is finished — it describes the proof T-Mobile requires to confirm a customer’s death. The evidence includes a mobile number, account number, name of the responsible billing party and a death certificate or a legal document confirming the customer’s death.

The problem isn’t just how these documents are provided to T-Mobile, but how soon. Requiring that you send them through the mail after a lengthy process can take weeks, even months. In a conversation with a T-Mobile representative, you were told that this was the company’s policy, and that T-Mobile wanted to build up charges and then write them off on their taxes, a practice that would make perfect sense from the perspective of a business.

I’m not sure T-Mobile is trying to profit from its customers’ demise. That would seem cold-hearted, and besides, the section dealing with death promises a reply to the request within a week.

But I do believe the system it uses to verify someone’s passing is needlessly complex. At the very least, every call center employee should be briefed on how to handle a call from someone’s next of kin (if not, then at least give them a darned script to read). Make it as easy as possible to settle a person’s affairs.

Maybe the company says it best on its site: “The death of a loved one is hard enough. T-Mobile doesn’t want to make it any more difficult.”

I contacted T-Mobile on your behalf. A representative sent me a prepared statement promising “T-Mobile is committed to delivering the best experience in wireless to our customers and takes great pride in delivering excellent customer service.” The company declined to comment on your case, citing privacy considerations.

But a representative called you and in a tone of voice you say was “very patronizing” told you the company’s policy was for the protection of its own customers. T-Mobile issued a credit to cover the amount showed as owing on the account and closed it.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Sky Captain

    My father passed away in December, 1997 and my mother passed in August, 2004. As their eldest child I was appointed “Personal Representative”, which is the Oklahoma equivalent of Executor. Among my numerous duties was preparing a “Notice to Creditors”, consisting of a letter which included the account number and account-holder’s name, explaining that the account holder had died, along with the date of death to mark the end of any charges to the account. There was also a “presentment date” stated in the body of the letter, which was two months from the day it was mailed, and that was the deadline for that company to fill out and return the Notice to file a claim against the estate.

    Along with the each Notice I included:
    1) An official copy of my father’s death certificate (if his name was still on the account);
    2) An official copy of my mother’s death certificate; and
    3) A copy of the “Letter of Administration With Will Annexed”, which appointed me Personal Representative for the estate.

    This provided a logic chain for them to follow showing my father’s death, my mother’s death, my authority to handle the account, and a deadline for them to reply if they wanted to file a claim. Just writing “Deceased” on a bill does nothing, and I can’t believe people think that would take care of anything.

    I don’t recall the exact number, but I believe I mailed out over thirty Letters to Creditors (which I had to list on an “Affidavit of Mailing Notice to Creditors of Decedent” so I could legally show that I did mail them out, and on what date). Of that number only five returned their Notice before the presentment date, so they were the only ones I had to pay off when the estate was settled.

    Two of the companies that did *not* return their letter at all later threatened me with sending the account to collections and one (who waited until fifteen months after the presentment date to contact me) threatened a lawsuit. I resent them all the same documentation as before, but this time I included the Affidavit showing that the documents had been sent, and a sharply-worded letter pointing out that they had screwed up, there was nothing they could do legally at that point, and that if they sent me any more letters of any kind I would “deal with them in the appropriate legal manner”. I never heard another peep.