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How to find lost life insurance policies

You think your dad named you as a beneficiary on a life insurance policy, but you didn't get the details before he died.

So where do you turn?

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It's a frustrating problem many people have faced. In fact, regulators estimate that more than $2 billion in benefits have gone unclaimed from lost or forgotten life insurance policies.

find lost life insuranceWhether you're owed $1,000 or $100,000, you can take steps to find a lost life insurance policy. And recent changes in the insurance industry may ease the search.

Life insurers are taking greater pains to locate beneficiaries in the wake of multistate investigations in the last several years into the industry's lack of effort to locate policy beneficiaries. State regulators found that life insurers were using the U.S. Social Security Administration's Death Master File, an up-to-date list of recent deaths, to halt annuity payments once a contract holder died. But many insurers did not use the same list to check whether any death benefit payments were due to beneficiaries of life insurance policies. Audits revealed that companies often would draw down the cash values of forgotten policies to cover the premium payments, even after the insured people had died.

In settlements with states, a slew of major insurance companies agreed to use Death Master and other databases to look for life insurance policyholders who have died and then make concerted efforts to locate beneficiaries. Investigations are continuing. California State Controller John Chiang announced last year that multi-state settlements with 18 insurers so far were worth an estimated $2.4 billion for beneficiaries across the country.

But don't wait for a life insurance company to find you. All you need is the name of the insurer that issued the policy; from there you can contact the insurer to start a claim, even if you don’t know the policy number.

Here are best ways to try to locate a lost policy:

Personal records

Search through files, safe deposit boxes and other areas where your loved one might have kept insurance documents. If you can't find evidence of the policy there, try to find out the name of the life insurance company that issued the policy. For clues, go through bank and credit card statements to look for evidence of premium payments made to an insurance company. Review recent income tax returns for any taxable withdrawals or dividends related to a life insurance policy. Go through address books and contact financial advisers who might have known about life insurance policies.

Employers and groups

Check with the employee benefits administrators of your relative's former employers to see if any group life insurance policies are still in effect or if your loved one purchased additional voluntary coverage at work. Fraternal organizations, unions, professional associations and other groups also make life insurance available to members.

Insurance companies

Contact insurance companies where your relative had other types of policies and ask if he had a life insurance policy there.

Some insurers, such as New York Life and MetLife, have lost-policy finders on their websites for policies they sold. The tools let you submit basic information about your deceased loved one. The companies then will search for any policies on which your loved was the insured. If you are named the beneficiary, the company will contact you. If a policy is found, but you're not the beneficiary, federal and state privacy laws restrict what the insurance company can tell you. The company will notify you if that's the case.

You can also contact each insurance company in the state where the policy likely was issued, but that could be hundreds of companies. The state’s insurance department will have a list of insurers that are licensed to do business there. Find your state insurance department contact information.

Your state government

The trouble with lost term life insurance policies

As you search for a lost policy, keep in mind that if it was a term life insurance policy, then you as the beneficiary collect the benefit only if the insured person died within the term. If your relative died after the term ended, the life insurance company owes you nothing. Only permanent life policies, such as whole or universal life, pay a death benefit regardless of when a person dies, as long as the premium was paid.

A growing number of states have created online policy finders to help beneficiaries. So far they include:

The New York Department of Financial Services Lost Policy Finder, for example, lets the executor or administrator of the deceased person's estate, a member of the deceased's immediate family or the closest living relative make a search request. To submit a request, you supply some basic information, including the deceased's date of birth, date of death and last known address, as well as a certified copy of the death certificate. The website provides information on how to acquire a copy of the death certificate if you don't have one.

The department then forwards your search request to all New York licensed life insurers. The insurers will search their records to identify a policy on which the deceased was the insured or owner, whether the policy was issued in New York or another state. Insurers that are incorporated in other states will search only for records of policies that were issued for delivery in the state of New York.

If the search turns up the policy and you are named the beneficiary, then the insurer will contact you directly. If a policy is found but you're not the beneficiary, the insurer will try to contact the beneficiary.

Another place to check is your state's unclaimed property division. Insurance companies turn policy proceeds over to these divisions when they know the insured person has died but can't find the beneficiary. The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators website provides links to unclaimed property divisions in each state.

Other life insurance locator services

If your loved one applied for life insurance in the last 18 years, then MIB Solutions Inc. has the names of companies to which he applied. MIB's database contains records of insurance inquiries made to virtually every U.S. and Canadian insurer since Jan. 1, 1996. You pay $75 for MIB's policy locator service to conduct a search. Only the following can use the service: an executive or administrator of the decedent's estate or a surviving spouse, a child if there is no spouse or estate representative, or closest living relative if there is no estate representative, spouse or child.

Another service, FindYourPolicy.com will have information about the policy if your relative registered his or her policy with the service. Registering your policy is free; the fee to search is $19.95.

You can also pay $108.50 to The Lost Life Insurance Finder Expert to search for the policy. Paul Archibald, a retired insurance professional, runs the service. He says he'll fax 420 life insurance companies on your behalf to find the policy.

Meanwhile, as you search for the policy, let this be a reminder to get your own affairs in order. Talk to your loved ones about your life insurance, and make sure your beneficiaries have the names of the insurers and policy numbers before you die.

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