When people die, there is a lot to deal with. Apart from dealing with the loss of a family member or friend, there is all the administrative effort in telling every club, association, business and government agency to stop sending mail.
Currently there is no effective system for notifying all relevant organisations that the person has passed away.
Some people put death notices in local newspapers. But few organisations will spend the time to check all the newspapers for death notices in case one of their clients features. This is especially since they know not all deaths are listed. Some families do contact relevant organisations to notify them of the deaths of a loved one. But not everyone does this.
Government agencies and commercial companies therefore keep accounts active, and continue to send out letters, newsletters, magazines and bills, without knowing the person has died. It can be hurtful and be seen as insensitive for an agency to continue to correspond with the deceased.
Some organisations arrange to receive death records from the Department of Internal Affairs which they match against their 'customer' databases. This makes good sense for both parties. Organisations save the cost of sending out unwanted correspondence, and grieving families don't have to tell yet another organisation that a family member has died.
The only problem is this matching is not 100 percent accurate. Occasionally, records for different people will match. This might happen one in thousand times and a person who is still living will be flagged in a database as dead.
This problem can occur whenever information from one agency is matched against information held by another agency. So, what might happen to someone if they are mistakenly tagged on their file as 'deceased'?
If it just means they will no longer receive invitations to help Nigerian princes arrange money transfers, or offers from real estate agents to value their homes, then perhaps these mistakes don't matter.
But if it drops them off a healthcare waiting list, or locks them out of their university accounts when a final assignment is due, then you should double check before you tag their record.
This is where principles seven and eight of the Privacy Act apply. Principle seven says a person has the right to correct information about them. Principle eight says an agency must check the accuracy of personal information before use.
How you carry out these checks will depend on the circumstances. How serious might the effects on the person be? Do you have direct contact with them? Do you have access to other sources of information about them?
For example, in a healthcare waiting list case, you might check with their GP. You might check, in the university case, by examining your activity logs and current enrolment records. A superannuation agency might write polite letters that don't assume it has got the information right - giving the recipient control of the situation and a reassurance that they are respected as a person.
Whether you say "trust but verify" or "measure twice, cut once", it is vital to confirm that information is correct before you act – and this is just as important in death as it is in life.