The Administrative Burden of Death

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At Cadence, we value the big picture of estate settlement as much as the nitty-gritty details. That’s why we’re looking into the concept of “administrative burden” to better understand people’s interactions with bureaucratic systems.

The Concept of Administrative Burden

Donald Moynihan, Pamela Herd, and Hope Harvey introduced the concept of administrative burden in 2015 in the Journal of Public Administration and Theory. The concept was further refined in Herd and Moynihan’s (2018) book, Administrative Burden: Policymaking by Other Means.

The concept of administrative burden is exactly what it sounds like: “A simple definition of administrative burden is that it is an individual’s experience of a policy’s implementation as onerous” (p. 22).[1] Three types of costs are entailed by administrative burdens.[2][3] Learning costs include spending time and effort figuring out how to access, qualify or apply for services or programs. Psychological costs include stigmatization, loss of control, and stress. People can feel stigmatized for applying for certain supports (think social assistance or counseling programs). They may sense a loss of autonomy in providing private information to various professionals or government officials. They may feel frustrated at excessive or convoluted procedures. And then there are compliance costs. These include the costs of losing time, energy, and money incurred by filling forms, making contacts, traveling, or waiting for document processing and authorization.

Learning costs, psychological costs, and compliance costs shape people’s perceptions of governing systems and make them more (or less) likely to access what they are entitled to. Adding to that, administrative burdens are distributed unevenly: they disproportionately impact people who have lower incomes, who have less formal education, who are women, and who belong to linguistic minorities.[4]

Does losing a loved one create administrative burdens for the bereaved?

Since Cadence supports executors in applying for a wide range of benefits, allowances, and pensions, we wanted to know more about the kinds of administrative burdens people experience as a part of estate administration. And indeed, research shows that administrative burdens do punctuate estate administration processes (at least in the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States, where studies have been conducted). Here are some takeaways from that work.

Learning costs. Usually, bereaved individuals are entering a role for which they have no prior training: becoming an estate executor means learning the duties, processes, and timelines to settle a person’s affairs, and often, people feel unprepared for it. Being an executor also demands an awareness of state benefits and their purposes and availability - information they need to search for and synthesize themselves.[5] Of course, not all estates are equally complex, but research finds these learning costs are quite common. There are even Facebook support groups, courses, and books devoted to informing people about executor duties and processes.

Psychological costs also appear in the estate administration process. Often, executors are stressed out by the volume, complexity, and time-intensive nature of post-death paperwork. Adding to this, grief can wrap people in a fog in the days following loss, making it difficult to manage administrative duties or cope with setbacks, delays, and uncertainties.[6][7][8] When grief seems to get in the way, people may put that emotional work on hold to focus on practical tasks.[9][10] Finally, in terms of a loss of agency, executors will sometimes feel their personal and financial lives have been invaded with requests for sensitive information coming from accountants, lawyers, and government officials.[11]

In dealing with a multitude of applications, notifications, and account closures, compliance costs surface. Executors spend a great deal of effort learning and adhering to the rules and requirements for filing documents. Fines or interest payments lurk as consequences if they fail to do something on time or correctly (at least, for some aspects of estate settlement).[12] Waits and delays for paperwork processing can generate further financial strain and uncertainty, and when errors occur, executors might find themselves making multiple trips and phone calls to offices.[13][14][15] This is one of the reasons that we encourage people to anticipate setbacks and set reasonable goals as they deal with post-death paperwork.

All in all, existing research identifies many learning costs, psychological costs, and compliance costs in the estate settlement process.

Coping with Administrative Burden

It seems that death does often entail administrative burden for bereaved family members; it may even be “ubiquitous.”[16] So then, what can help? The research provides some clues. Family members can assist executors, though this can be tricky if they live far away.[17] Governments can also minimize administrative burdens on their citizens; for example, the United Kingdom’s “Tell us Once” program reduces visits and phone calls to various agencies and offices, simultaneously protecting executors from spending money that will not be disbursed to them.[18] Small kindnesses also matter: empathetic professionals and staff can make the difference between a highly frustrating interaction and a self-affirming one.[19][20] Finally, when people get the “the right information provided in the right way at the right time” they are better able to navigate administrative work (p. 32).[21]

When things go well, executors might find themselves feeling proud of the skills they've earned by settling their loved one's affairs.[22] Provided with proper information and social support, they are more likely to feel this way. As was described in one study, participants held “a wish for information and a centralized agency or allocated 'go to' person, with up to date knowledge, experience, and practices in relation to bereavement, particularly in relation to dealing with the deceased's estate and other practical matters” (p. 631).[23]

How Cadence Minimizes Administrative Burdens for Executors

In exploring the concept of administrative burden, we’re seeing how Cadence fills exactly this gap. In mastering various notification and application processes and requirements, Cadence reduces learning costs for our clients. In providing information and documents in an accessible, digestible form, Cadence reduces the psychological costs. And in providing tailored guidance through the estate settlement process, Cadence minimizes compliance costs that otherwise might require multiple phone calls or office visits. Leveraging the value of social and informational support, our client care specialists can answer questions, help with hard-to-do tasks or simply lend an ear. This blend of compassionate human support and person-centred technology minimizes the administrative burden of death.

References: [1][2][3][4] Herd, P., & Moynihan, D. P. (2019). Administrative burden: Policymaking by other means. Russell Sage Foundation. [2]Moynihan, D., Herd, P., & Harvey, H. (2015). Administrative burden: Learning, psychological, and compliance costs in citizen-state interactions. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 25(1), 43–69. [3][5][8][15]Corden, A., Hirst, M., & Nice, K. (2010). Death of a partner: Financial implications and experience of loss. Bereavement Care, 29(1), 23-28. [4]Baglione, A. N., Girard, M. M., Price, M., Clawson, J., & Shih, P. C. (2018). Modern bereavement: A model for Complicated grief in the digital age. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems - Proceedings, 2018-April, 1–12. [6][11][16][17]DiGiacomo, M., Lewis, J., Phillips, J., Nolan, M., & Davidson, P. M. (2015). The business of death: a qualitative study of financial concerns of widowed older women. BMC Women's Health, 15(1), 36. [7][14][22][23]Blackburn, P., & Bulsara, C. (2018). “I am tired of having to prove that my husband was dead.” Dealing with practical matters in bereavement and the impact on the bereaved. Death Studies, 42(10), 627–635. [12][18][19][21]Wadey, A. (2013). Finding meaning in the bureaucracy of bereavement. Bereavement Care, 32(1), 39-43. [13]Agha, A., Kutney-Lee, A., Kinder, D., Shreve, S., & Keddem, S. (2021). “That is care that you just can’t fake!”: Identifying best practices for the care of Vietnam veterans at end of life. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 61(5), 983–990. [20]Hartung, S. (2018). Your digital undertaker: Exploring death in the digital age in Canada. Friesen Press.