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Sharing information about death and taxes Neil Sanson
23 February 2015

headstone edit

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.

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  • The Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) is happy to assist organisations with update their databases. This is done via a signed agreement to share death information under section 78F of the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Act 1955.
    The organisation will need to have stringent identifiers in place to ensure the correct person is noted as being deceased in their database. The Department does charge a fee for this service, however it is minimal given the savings an organisation can make with a clean database. The frequency of the information is always tailored to meet the specific needs of the organisation. For more information contact bdmnz@dia.govt.nz

    Posted by Michael Mead, 02/04/2015 5:10pm (3 years ago)

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    The aim of the Office of Privacy Commissioner’s blog is to provide a space for people to interact with the content posted. We reserve the right to moderate all comments. We will not publish any content that is abusive, defamatory or is obviously commercial. We ask for your email address so that we can contact you if necessary to clarify your comment. Please be respectful of authors and others leaving comments.

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The aim of the Office of Privacy Commissioner’s blog is to provide a space for people to interact with the content posted. We reserve the right to moderate all comments. We will not publish any content that is abusive, defamatory or is obviously commercial. We ask for your email address so that we can contact you if necessary to clarify your comment. Please be respectful of authors and others leaving comments.

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