When you buy life insurance, you’re purchasing financial protection for your beneficiary when you die. But say you pass away shortly after taking out the policy, during the contestability period. While your beneficiary should still get a payout, your insurer has the right to review your application materials for inaccuracies.
Contestability only applies if the insurer finds intentional misrepresentations in your application. For example, if you purposefully concealed a depression diagnosis, they can deny or reduce the death benefit.
Contestability allows your provider to review your application for intentional errors after a death claim.
The contestability period only lasts for two years.
If you get a new policy or reinstate your policy after a lapse, contestability restarts.
Unless your policy includes an incontestability clause, you can still be punished for false information after two years.
What is the life insurance contestability period?
The contestability period lasts for two years after your life insurance policy goes in force and allows the insurer to review your coverage for misrepresentations during the application process. Contestability protects the life insurance company from fraud. The insurer wants to make sure that you didn’t withhold or lie about any health- or lifestyle-related information during the application process to get more affordable coverage.
The misrepresentations don’t have to be related to your cause of death. For example, if you die from choking on a pretzel but also failed to disclose a history of drug or alcohol abuse, the life insurance company can deny your beneficiary's claim.
What happens if you lie on a life insurance application?
If you made a simple mistake on your application, like forgetting to name a prescription, don’t worry. There are opportunities to correct unintentional errors. The contestability period exists to penalize people who hid or lied about information to take advantage of the lower premiums meant for less risky applicants.
If you are purposefully dishonest, insurance providers can find out. During the underwriting process, most people have a medical exam, which includes routine blood and urine testing. Underwriters also compare your statements against a report from the Medical Information Bureau (MIB), which compiles information like previous surgeries and medical diagnoses or treatments using other insurance applications you’ve completed. If the insurer discovers that you lied, that will go on your MIB report too, which could cause other insurers to deny you coverage in the future.
If your life insurance company finds a misrepresentation in your application, you can still lose your coverage, even if you're alive and even after the contestability period ends. Being completely honest is the best way to ensure your beneficiaries are protected in the long run.
What contestability means for the death benefit
Just because your life insurance company is investigating the circumstances around your death does not mean that it will reject your beneficiary’s claim. Even if the information does contain some flaws, the insurer may still pay the death benefit or pay a reduced benefit that accounts for the higher premiums you should have paid. This will happen if the mistake is over something minor, like a small difference in your weight, but bigger discrepancies increase the chances that the claim will be denied.
How a policy lapse affects contestability
If you fall behind on your premiums, your policy will eventually lapse, and you’ll have to reapply for life insurance to restore coverage for your loved ones.
In addition to higher premiums based on your older age and going through the underwriting process again, you'll also start a new contestability period. If you conceal information in your new application and die during the first two years, your beneficiaries could lose out on the death benefit just as they would the first time around.
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The incontestability clause
The life insurance company can often withhold or reduce your death benefit if they discover fraud in your application even after contestability ends. But, some policies include an incontestability clause that prevents insurers from investigating claims made after the contestability period. Read your policy thoroughly or ask your insurer for help if you’re unsure whether you have this protection.
The suicide clause
Your life insurance policy also includes a “suicide clause,” which overlaps with the contestability period — the first two to three years of your coverage — but is a separate part of your policy.
Contestability gives the life insurance company the right to investigate your cause of death. The suicide clause gives the company the ability to reject your beneficiary’s claim if the cause of death was self-harm.
Suicide clauses exist to deter someone from buying a policy with the intention of harming themselves and leaving money to their beneficiaries. If you die by suicide after two to three years, then your insurer will pay the death benefit. As with the contestability period, the suicide clause period resets if you need to get a new policy.
If you’re feeling hopeless or like you have no reason to live, or know someone experiencing those feelings, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Someone will be available to talk and provide support.
Contestability is not a way for life insurance companies to punish you for genuine errors that are easily corrected. It is used to identify anyone who intentionally gave the insurer incorrect information to avoid paying higher premiums. Be forthcoming when you're buying your policy to ensure your loved ones can collect the full death benefit when you die.
Frequently asked questions
What is the contestability period?
If you die within the first two years of owning your life insurance policy, contestability allows your provider to review your application for intentional misrepresentations.
What happens when a life insurance policy is contested?
If an insurer contests a life insurance claim, they will deny or reduce the death benefit paid out to your beneficiaries and provide a detailed explanation as to why the claim was contested.
Can a life insurance company deny a claim after two years?
Your provider can usually cancel your policy or deny a claim due to fraud found on an application at any time, but it’s less likely they’ll investigate claims after the contestability period ends.
How long does the contestability period last?
The contestability period lasts two years. If you get a new policy or reinstate a lapsed policy, the two-year period restarts.