Death and leases: The challenge of helping a grieving family

Sauna Gordon: "Both family members and our dealers who work with families after a loss have expressed positive feedback and gratitude for the program.”

When a lease customer dies during his or her term, what happens to the contract?

That’s the case for less than 1 percent of the clients in Mercedes-Benz Financial Services USA’s portfolio. Previously, Mercedes-Benz Financial employees were assigned to those lease accounts and spoke with the clients’ families.

The conversations were difficult not only for the family members, but for the employees.

So in 2014, Mercedes-Benz Financial brought in a grief counselor to help employees learn how to best handle those phone calls, and the company launched the Customer Bereavement Program.

Now, if the account is up to date, the deceased client’s family has two options:

  • Return the vehicle within 10 days and allow Mercedes-Benz Financial to relieve them of payments; or
  • Transfer the vehicle to a family member’s name. That family member can either take over the payments or pay off the vehicle.

Sometimes, there is sentimental value to the vehicle, so family members want to keep it, said Sauna Gordon, senior manager of collections. But other times, family members have no need for the vehicle, or they can’t afford it.

A year and a half into the program, employees now “feel better prepared to support a grieving family” while handling the family member’s account, Gordon said. “Both family members and our dealers who work with families after a loss have expressed positive feedback and gratitude for the program,” she said.

Simple process

The family must provide some documentation, but overall, Mercedes-Benz’s goal is to have a simple process that puts the customer at ease.

Each situation may be a bit different, so Mercedes-Benz looks at it on a case-by-case basis, Gordon said. If the deceased client was behind on payments, the loved ones won’t have the opportunity to return or transfer the vehicle right away, but the agents will work with them to reach a solution.

“We recognized that this was something that we needed to do. It was the right thing to do,” Gordon said.

When Mercedes-Benz is notified of the death, it sends the family a leather journal and pen as a token to show the lender’s understanding of their situation, as well as a letter offering condolences and appreciation for the customer. It also tells the family how to contact them to discuss options for the vehicle.

It’s a gesture to show customers that they are important, and “it’s made a tremendous impact,” Gordon said. “Families are often surprised and relieved that this is one less thing they have to worry about when there is so much to manage.”

You can reach Hannah Lutz at hlutz@crain.com

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