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Not sure if you’re a life insurance beneficiary? Here’s how to find out

Don’t assume that, if a loved one passes away, you will automatically be contacted by their life insurance company. If you think someone might have left you some money from a life policy, there are things you can do to find out.
January 18, 2023
3 min read
Mom and kids come into their front door after a long day at work and school

Being a beneficiary of a loved one’s life insurance policy (the person they have chosen to receive the money known as a “death benefit”) isn’t something that happens to us every day. So, it’s understandable you might be confused about life insurance beneficiary rules, and about how the process works. Let’s say you’re not sure you’re a life insurance beneficiary. Will someone tell you? Or do you have to do something to find out?

In most cases, beneficiaries know they’re beneficiaries because the policyholder tells them ahead of time. This is the ideal situation—a loved one who’s still alive lets you know you have been named their life insurance beneficiary and where to find the policy if they die while the policy is in force. If the loved one passes away, you know how to locate the policy and contact the insurance company to make a claim.

But, sometimes, policyholders forget to tell their beneficiaries about the policy or the details—where they keep the paperwork, how much the policy is worth, and the name and contact information for the insurance company. You may have an idea that there’s a life insurance policy and that you were meant to be a beneficiary, but you don’t know for sure. Now, what?

Many life insurance companies try to contact beneficiaries if the beneficiaries don’t contact them first. The “catch” is that there’s no automatic process that tells them about policyholder deaths. Usually, the way the insurance company finds out the policyholder has died, and that the policy needs to be paid, is from the beneficiaries or other family members. Many states require insurance companies to check the Social Security “Master Death File” for deceased policy holders and to try to notify their beneficiaries when they find a policyholder on that list. But that can take time. And it’s not the rule in every state.

So, don’t count on the company finding you. If you think your loved one might have had a life insurance policy, and you might be a beneficiary, there are things you can do to find out.

One suggestion is to ask other members of the family, if possible. Someone might know something you don’t. Assuming you have the authority to look through your loved one’s personal papers (or can get permission), look for the insurance policy itself. If you don’t find the policy, look for life insurance receipts or evidence of payments in a checkbook register. Remember to check digital storage—computers and mobile phones—as well. If you think your loved one may have been covered at work, contact that person’s former employer or labor union. If any of these searches turn up the name of the insurance company, that can sometimes be enough to start the claim process. (Having a company name and a policy number is even better.)

Let’s say you try those steps and come up empty. Don’t give up—there are still ways to track down a life insurance policy. You might want to contact the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) for their free Life Insurance Policy Locator Service, which looks for policies on the databases of many insurance companies. Another great resource could be your state’s Department of Insurance (DOI). Some states have DOI websites where you can put in information about the deceased and find out if they had insurance policies.

One last thought. If you have a life insurance policy of your own, make sure your loved ones know about it. That will help make it easier for them to get the money you want them to have.

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