Wondering how to file a life insurance claim? If you're the beneficiary on a recently deceased person's life insurance policy, you need to file a claim for the death benefit. If you don't, you probably won't see the money and you definitely won't be alone: Unclaimed life insurance benefits total at least $1 billion each year.

One thing to mention before we review how to make a claim on life insurance. It’s not greedy to think about life insurance after a person's death. The purpose of having life insurance is to help loved ones cope with the loss.

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The financial needs that arise soon after a family member's death can be significant, so there should be no shame in pursuing the money that the deceased wanted you to have.

Key Takeaways

  • Having a life insurance policy’s details can help speed up the death benefit claims process.
  • A life insurance agent or the life insurance company can help you fill out the necessary forms.
  • A life insurance company may deny a claim, including if the person lied on the life insurance application or the deceased person stopped paying premiums

What is the purpose of life insurance?

Life insurance is the ultimate safety net for your family. Should you die, a life insurance policy can provide surviving loved ones with a sound financial foundation.

This type of coverage is crucial if you’re the primary breadwinner in the family. Your loved ones depend on your income for both the basic necessities and the extras of life. Purchasing a term life policy helps ensure that your family can maintain their standard of living after you’re gone. Meanwhile, a permanent life policy, such as whole life, might not provide enough funds to maintain a standard of living but can help with funeral costs and other end-of-life costs.

Life insurance isn’t just for those with families. It can also benefit people in many other life circumstances, says Bob Fee, president of Fee Insurance Group in Hutchinson, Kansas.

“Nearly everyone has some life insurance needs, even if you don’t think you do,” says Fee, who also is chair-elect of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America.

He adds that even older people can benefit from buying life insurance if they want to “leave tax-free dollars to their family for final expenses and any other issues that come up that were maybe unforeseen.”

How to file a life insurance claim

Here are the steps to take when making a life insurance claim.

1. Get the policy details

With any luck, you're already aware of the deceased's life insurance policy and where it's located. Ideally, it will be stored safely, such as in a metal filing cabinet or fireproof lockbox.

However, you could have a slight problem if the policy was kept in a bank's safety deposit box.

"In most states, safety deposit boxes are sealed temporarily upon one's death, which could delay settlement," says Whit Cornman, a spokesman for the American Council of Life Insurers.

If you're unsure of the policy's details or where it’s located, look for common places people store important papers:

  • Nightstands
  • Desk drawers
  • Bookshelves

It's possible the deceased had life insurance through work or bought a policy independently from a life insurance company, so insurance agents and human resources personnel may also help track down policy information.

2. Check for other policies

Even if the deceased never mentioned them, there may be other insurance policies in place. These can include accidental death and dismemberment policies, which employers sometimes offer as riders to their insurance policies. Check with the deceased's human resources representative.

If the person was killed while traveling and had travel accident insurance, you may be entitled to additional benefits. Check with the lender that issued the card the deceased used to buy the tickets and travel, as well as with road clubs to which the person belonged.

You should check for government benefits as well.

Surviving spouses and children may be eligible for a small Social Security burial benefit or monthly survivor benefits. If the deceased served in the military, you might qualify for benefits if he or she served in a war zone or if a service injury contributed to the death.

3. Contact the agent

You should notify the insurance company as soon as possible after the policyholder died. Once you find the life insurance policy, look for a contact name and number. The life insurance agent who sold the policy can also help with the life insurance claim process and work as an intermediary with the insurance company.

If you don't know the agent’s name, contact the life insurance company directly.

If the deceased had group life insurance through an employer, contact the employer's human resources department about making a life insurance claim. The deceased's pay stubs might indicate whether charges for additional group life insurance coverage occurred each month.

"If you are unable to contact the employer, you can contact the life insurance company directly," Cornman says.

4. Obtain copies of the death certificate

When filing a life insurance claim, you need a certified copy of the person's death certificate.

"A death certificate is the standard form of documentation required when filing a state life insurance claim," Cornman says.

The funeral director can help you obtain certified copies of the death certificate. They usually will be sent to you by the vital records department in the state in which the person lived. You should receive your copies within a few weeks of the death. Usually, there is a fee for each copy.

If your loved one is presumed missing and hasn't been declared dead, you won't have a death certificate. Under these special circumstances, you may need an acceptable alternative to the death certificate.

"In this case, a court order stating that the insured is dead or presumed dead may suffice," Cornman says.

5. Request claim forms

The life insurance company representative can help you obtain the claim forms you need. You must complete the forms and gather all the information that the insurance company requests.

If you're too upset to fill out the forms yourself, ask your insurance agent or estate attorney to help you. You have to sign the form, however. All the beneficiaries named in the policy have to fill out claim forms.

If you want your claim to proceed quickly, be sure to follow the insurance company's directions carefully.

6. Choose how your proceeds will be paid

You may have several payment options available after you claim life insurance. They can include a lump sum, which may be a good option if you need to pay immediate expenses. It may also be possible to have the life insurance company pay you principal and interest in installments.

Another option with some policies is life income. This option aims to stretch payments over your remaining lifespan. Some policies also have an interest income option. with this option, the company holds the proceeds and pays you interest, allowing the death benefit to remain intact. Upon your death, it will go to a second beneficiary of your choice.

In most cases, life insurance proceeds aren't taxable. However, if you choose one of the options that pays you interest, the interest may be taxable as income. Check with your financial adviser before choosing your option, as settlement options sometimes cannot be changed.

7. Submit the completed forms

You need to send back the completed paperwork and a certified copy of the death certificate. Be sure to return the forms and death certificate via certified mail or with a return receipt requested so you can track it.

It's then simply a matter of waiting for your check to come in the mail. How long does it take to get life insurance money after a death?

"In most states, prompt pay laws require insurers to respond within a certain number of days," Cornman says. "However, the number of days can vary from state to state."

It can take a few days to a few weeks to see your check. But if you have done everything correctly, the benefit should be in your hands reasonably soon.

Frequently Asked Questions

What kinds of things might cause a life insurance claim to be denied?

Lying on your application is one of the chief reasons claims are denied. If you misrepresent yourself and your situation – such as not disclosing a serious health problem – and the insurer finds out, your claim will be denied. This is true even if your cause of death had nothing to do with the illness you tried to hide.

Insurance companies will likely deny a claim if the person fibbed during the “contestability period.” This occurs during the first couple of years after you purchase the policy. An insurer may also deny a claim if the person died by suicide within the contestability period.

Failing to pay your premiums also can lead to a claim denial. It’s possible your beneficiaries won’t even be aware that you missed payments. But if you fail to pay, your loved ones could be in for a rude shock after you die.

A claim also might be denied if:

  • The deceased’s primary beneficiary died and never named a secondary
  • The deceased is divorced and didn’t rename the current spouse as a beneficiary
  • The deceased failed to disclose that the person engaged in high-risk hobbies and activities

Can I get life insurance without taking a medical exam?

It’s possible to get life insurance without an exam. However, you might want to think twice before doing so.

“You will be very limited in the amount of coverage you can obtain without undergoing a medical exam,” Fee says.

There are three major types of policies available without a medical exam:

  • Simplified issue: This type of coverage requires you to answer questions about your medical history, ranging from your history of alcohol use to your personal and family medical history.
  • Guaranteed issue: People between the ages of 50 and 85 with serious health conditions often buy these policies -- usually because they can’t get other life insurance coverage.
  • Group coverage: Employers often offer group coverage as part of their benefits package. You may have to answer a series of questions to qualify for the coverage.

No-exam insurance almost always is more expensive than a policy that requires a medical exam. The reason is simple: Without an exam, the insurance company doesn’t know the full truth about your health. That increases the insurer’s risk significantly, and the company almost surely will charge you substantially more as a way of covering that risk.

These types of policies also may limit the amount of coverage you can buy -- typically, it is a maximum of $500,000. And a host of other limitations and exclusions can be part of the coverage.

The bottom line is that most experts discourage people from purchasing no-exam insurance unless they have no other choice. If you have a medical condition that prohibits you from getting life insurance any other way, a policy that doesn’t require a medical exam might make sense in some situations.

Can I have more than one life insurance policy?

Yes, you can hold more than one policy. Having multiple life insurance policies might sound wasteful. But that isn’t always the case.

“Having multiple policies oftentimes makes a great deal of sense,” Fee says.

If you already have a policy in place but find that you need more coverage, it’s often more cost-effective to hold on to the old policy and simply buy a second policy for the additional coverage you seek.

“It is less expensive to keep what you currently have and add more coverage since life insurance is age-rated,” Fee says.

For example, if you buy a policy at age 35 and decide you need more insurance at 50, any new policy you buy is likely to be more expensive than your original policy.

How much life insurance do I need?

Determining how much life insurance you need can be difficult. Fortunately, Insure.com can help you zero in on the right amount of coverage for you.

Stop by our Insurance Advisor and answer a few basic questions about life insurance plans and your needs. This will help you determine the state of your life insurance well-being.

You can also use our life insurance calculator to get an even more precise idea of the level of coverage you require.

Still unsure of what you need? Talk to an independent life insurance agent. These experts will ask the right questions to guide you to the policy that is best for you.