According to a 2013 Consumer Reports study, there’s an estimated $1 billion of unclaimed life insurance benefits sitting around and gathering dust. The odds of being a beneficiary of one of these unclaimed policies is 1 in 600. You have a better chance of being a beneficiary than winning $100 on a Powerball lotto ticket.
How do these life insurance policies get lost? It’s as simple as misplacing a copy of the policy or a policyholder never telling their beneficiaries that the policy exists. Under a traditional life insurance policy, the burden falls on the beneficiary to file a claim and prove that the policyholder has passed away. Some states are leading charges to combat this with free locator services that allow residents to track down lost policies.
Unfortunately, despite these recent changes, there’s no guarantee that a life insurance company will contact you if you are a beneficiary. If you suspect that you may be the beneficiary of a lost life insurance policy, follow these simple steps to find it.
Looking for the life insurance policy
Step One: Look for the policy in the deceased’s belongings.
It might be in a place you initially overlooked - a pile of old papers in an office box, for example. Or it might be hidden in a safe or chest. Make sure you’ve gone through everything that you can get your hands on.
Step Two: Look for the policy in safety deposit boxes and digital storage.
If you find evidence of a safety deposit box in the deceased’s belongings, you should look to get access to it. It might be difficult - banks won’t let you access a safety deposit box unless your name is on the lease.
There are ways around this. The executor of the deceased’s estate should be able to access safety deposit boxes, but each state has different rules about how long after a death they can access the boxes. You can also get a court order to open it up, though this method will take time.
If you have access to the deceased’s computer or phone, you may have evidence of or access to digital storage, like Dropbox or Evernote. If you have the password and can see the files - great! Look for a policy.
If you don’t, you can start the process of getting access. Most companies have instructions on how to contact them regarding a deceased person’s account (here’s instructions from Dropbox as an example). In the case of Dropbox and other companies, you will need to get a court order establishing that it was the deceased’s intent for you to have access to those files.
Step Three: Look for any other clues.
If you can’t find an actual policy, you may be able to find evidence of the policy elsewhere. You’re going to be like a detective looking for clues, so grab your magnifying glass and deerstalker.
Look at any old bank or credit card statements. You may be able to find payments to a life insurance policy. Remember that the deceased might have paid their premiums annually instead of monthly, so you may not find a payment in every statement. You might also find an invoice from the insurance company in the deceased’s mail.
If the deceased had an address book or rolodex, look for an insurance agent’s information. They may have helped the deceased buy a policy and can help you get in contact with the insurance company.
If you found an insurance policy - continue on to Steps One & Two in the next section.
If you didn’t find an insurance policy, don’t fret. Continue on to Steps One & Three in the next section.
Asking the life insurance companies
Step One: Collect all of the deceased’s information.
You’re going to need a paper trail. Gather up proof of the deceased’s identity, including full name, social security number, and past addresses. You’re also going to need official government documents, specifically a death certificate, to present to the insurance company.
If you can’t find the official government documents you need, check out VitalChek. VitalChek is an "officially authorized service agent for hundreds of state and local governments" and is one of the easiest ways to get official government documents online. The agencies will usually charge you for the documents, and VitalChek will charge a small fee on top of that charge.
Step Two: If you know the insurance company, contact them for help.
So, you’ve found evidence of a policy or an actual policy. The next step is easy: contact the company.
Some companies have entire departments to field these kind of requests, while at others you will have to go through their standard support lines. Some companies, like MetLife and John Hancock, actually have online web forms that you can fill out. To find phone support lines, look on the website of the insurance company you’re trying to contact.
If the company finds the deceased’s policy, you can put in a claim for the benefits immediately. The insurance company will let you know what documents you need to provide, but if you gathered all of the deceased’s information in step one, you should already be prepared. Congratulations - you’re done!
If a significant amount of time has passed since the policyholder’s death, the insurance company may have given the benefits to the state’s unclaimed property office. If this is the case, check out Step Four below.
Sometimes, insurance companies will take money out of the policy to pay for premiums after a policyholder’s death. This is the kind of practice that states are trying to stop, and you may be able to take legal action against the company. Contact a lawyer and your state’s department of insurance for more advice.
Step Three: If you don’t know the insurance company, contact all of them.
If you think there’s a policy, but don’t know what insurance company issued it, you can start cold calling national insurance companies. How do you know what insurance companies exist in your state? Luckily, each state’s department of insurance will have a full list. Choose your state from this map from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners to get to your state’s department website.
Your state’s department website should give you customer support information. You can also find customer support lines on listed on the insurer’s website. Some companies, like MetLife and John Hancock, actually have online web forms that you can fill out.
Don’t forget - you need to search for companies in the state that the deceased lived in. You may need to check multiple states if the deceased moved during their lifetime.
If you can’t find a policy at any insurance company you find, there may not be a policy. If you don’t have any evidence of a policy and no insurance company can find one, this may be the end of your search.
If you want to check unclaimed property offices for benefits, check out Step Four below.
Step Four: Check with the state’s unclaimed property office.
If it’s been a significant amount of time since the policyholder’s death, the insurance company may have given the benefits to a state’s unclaimed property office. Note that this will be the unclaimed property office in the policyholder’s former state of residence and not necessarily your state of residence.
This will be where the list of the deceased’s former addresses will come in handy. If the deceased bought the policy in a different state, the unclaimed benefits may go to that state’s unclaimed property office. To be safe, check with each state that the deceased lived in during their adult life.
MissingMoney.com, a tool endorsed by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators and participating government agencies, can help you easily search dozens of states’ unclaimed property offices (and even one Canadian province). MissingMoney.com is updated every week with new data and is always free to search.
The tool also lists contact information for all fifty states’ unclaimed property offices, even if those states do not participate in MissingMoney.com.
If you find unclaimed property through MissingMoney.com, you can make a claim through the website. Otherwise, you can contact the state’s unclaimed property office.
If MissingMoney comes up empty and contacting the state’s unclaimed property office directly turns up nothing, check with other states the deceased may have lived in. If that search turns up empty, there may not be any unclaimed benefits.
Share your tips
Once you’ve gone through this process, we encourage you to come back and leave a comment about your experience! If you’ve already done it before, tell us your story in the comments below. We want to hear from everybody who’s searched for a lost life insurance policy.
If you have a life insurance policy and want to make sure your beneficiaries never have to go through this process, check out our guide to keeping life insurance policies safe.