What do you do when a client dies?

Over the last decade we’ve been fortunate to work with some really amazing people. Since a lot of our business comes from clients who run small organizations, it’s often just one, maybe two, people running the show. On two separate occasions we’ve had clients that have become ill and later one passed on, leaving us with the question: what do we do now that our client has died?

If you think about the relationship you have with other service professionals — your dentist, doctor, attorney, etc. — they probably just mark it down, maybe send some flowers to the funeral, and go on with their business. But we have a different relationship. We have this living product of a website out there. It has ongoing costs, like hosting and domain renewal fees, there’s probably an email address or two attached to it and there may be people trying to reach the business owner. There may be customers expecting orders, or staff or contractors expecting information.

We’ve had a few clients survive bouts with cancer, thankfully, and we’re continuing to work with them today. But shortly after they received their diagnosis they clued us in and this helped immensely. If you’re the client, here’s what you should do:

  1. Tell your contractors so they can be aware. You don’t have to spill all the details, but keep them in the loop.
  2. Designate someone either on paper, through a will, or just in a phone call or email, to be your go-to contact to make decisions on your behalf if you otherwise can’t.
  3. If circumstances warrant it, put together a plan to hand off or close the business.

For us as the contractor we don’t have a formal plan to ask people about this sort of thing because every scenario is too different. But sometimes it comes up too suddenly.

We had one client who was suffering from pneumonia and seemed to be okay, but it turned quickly and got the better of him and he later died. We didn’t hear anything from the client and suspected something may be wrong. It was until we went to their home and found family there collecting the belongings that we knew for sure. In that scenario, here’s what we did:

  1. As email administrators we can’t see the client’s emails unless we forcibly change the password to something else and login ourselves. If we did this, you’d obviously notice that, but in this case we reset the password and skimmed through the inbox looking for emails to tie up open conversations.
  2. We also set an email auto-responder on the account to notify people that the business has stopped operating due to the death. We identified ourselves, indicated we were listed as administrators, and signed it as us.
  3. The websites had hosting paid up through another 7 or 8 months, so we left the sites up, but with indications that the business was no longer operating. In our case it was a one-man operation with no immediate staff. If there were a staff, presumably operations could continue. Every case is different.
  4. We paid for the hosting of the sites for another year just to keep the notice up and the email running so everyone could possibly be informed. After that we let the domains expire and closed all the accounts.

Without noticing anything specific in the will, we did not share the login information with family or friends out of respect for our client’s privacy. When we work with a client we sign a contract that stipulates we will keep all of your personal and business information confidential and secure except where otherwise prohibited by law. We take that seriously, even after life.

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Justin Harter

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