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Amid the grief and turmoil after a loved one’s passing, questions about auto and home insurance naturally aren’t top of mind.

But the death of a loved one who owned a home or car has implications that can lead to trouble if they’re not addressed soon enough.

“Clients are going through the grieving process, so they’re not looking at the insurance issues,” says David Morales, a financial advisor with New England Financial, a Mass Mutual firm in Rocky Hill, Connecticut.

However, it’s important to immediately notify the insurance company and transfer over the name of the insured within 30 days. Doing so protects the financial health of you and your family. If you fail to do so, the insurance company might not pay out if you file a claim. That means you could be on the hook for thousands of dollars of damages. 

Key Takeaways

  • If the policyholder dies, their family can keep the homeowner’s insurance policy and auto policy just by making the premium payments on time.
  • Most insurance companies give at least 30 days to the family to inform about the policy holder’s death to the insurer.
  • If the family of the policyholder decides to take possession of the car after their death, then they will have to change the title at the local DMV and buy a new insurance policy.

How to handle the death of a policyholder

What you need to do to maintain essential insurance coverage varies depending on your personal situation. Below, experts have weighed in on what to do after the death of a policyholder in three common scenarios.

A spouse dies, leaving a home and car to the surviving wife or husband

“Most insurance policies have provisions for surviving spouses,” says New York estate attorney Jeffrey Asher, owner of the Law Offices of Jeffrey A. Asher, PLLC.

“Upon the death of a policyholder, whether home or auto, the surviving spouse is allowed to maintain the homeowner’s insurance policy and auto policy merely by continuing to make premium payments.”

But in both cases the surviving spouse must still call the insurance company to let it know about the policyholder’s death and ask to be listed as the “named insured,” Asher says.

Morales says homeowners insurance generally remains in effect for a certain time until the policy can be reregistered or rewritten.

“While each company’s contract can be different, most insurance companies will give a family up to 30 days to notify the insurance company of a policyholder’s death,” he says.

The main issue for the insurance company is how the contract is titled — who will be living there and who owns the property?

“For example, if a husband and wife own the house and the husband dies, the wife can send a certified death certificate and the policies can be placed in her name since she has ownership,” Morales says.

A widow or widower dies, leaving the house to adult children

The heirs should notify the homeowners insurance company as soon as possible, Morales says.

If the house will be vacant or rented out, then the insurer will require that the policy be rewritten because the home will no longer be owner-occupied.

“Or if the home is re-deeded to one of the children after the estate has been settled, then a new homeowner policy can be written for the child,” Morales says.

Asher advises that “you need to be very upfront with the insurance company.”

You may have to pay a higher premium if the home is vacant. The risk for theft, vandalism and other losses is greater for vacant than occupied homes because no one is there to catch problems, such as water leaks, or establish a presence to ward off thieves.

“But the extra premium is worth it, compared to [the cost of a] loss if the insurance doesn’t pay because you didn’t tell them that [your parent] had died,” Asher says.

How long the old home insurance policy stays in effect before it needs to change depends on the terms of the contract and state insurance laws, Morales says.

“Insurance companies will give a reasonable period to continue coverage,” he says.

Asher recommends documenting telephone conversations with the insurance company or agent when you call report the death of the homeowner and discuss next steps. Don’t forget to check when the policy’s premiums are due next.

“If the family informs the insurance company of the death of the homeowner within the time prescribed in the policy, and the family continues to pay the premiums, then the insurance company should pay a claim if something happens to the home,” Asher says.

“However, an insurance company may not honor a claim if the family hid the homeowner’s death from the insurance company, the home was vacant for an unreasonable amount of time, or for other reasons the insurance company considers breaches of the insurance policy.”

A single policyholder dies, leaving behind a car

The estate’s legal representative — meaning an executor or administrator — is covered when driving the car for maintenance purposes, such as taking the vehicle to the DMV or to the shop for repairs, Asher says. The legal representative is responsible for preserving the estate’s assets, including the car. But the deceased owner’s insurance would not provide coverage for the legal representative to drive the car for personal use.

If another driver besides the deceased is listed on the policy, then that person may be covered when driving the car until the policy’s renewal date, Morales says.

But other drivers are not covered.

“The family should not drive the car until they have contacted the insurance company,” Morales says.

Normally a standard auto insurance policy covers the drivers listed on the policy and anyone the owner gives occasional permission to use the car. A deceased policyholder can’t give permission. Even if your mother let you use the car when she was living, that permission doesn’t extend beyond her death.

“If a family member is going to take possession of the car, then the title must change hands at the local DMV and a new insurance policy must be purchased,” Asher says. “If the car is going to be sold, then it should be sold quickly.”

When contacting your insurance company after a loved one has died, be prepared with the policy numbers and a certified copy of the death certificate.