Hundreds of millions of dollars in life insurance payouts go unclaimed by the beneficiaries every year. If someone makes you a beneficiary of her policy, she's under no obligation to tell you. When she dies, the company won't notify you, either, unless it knows she's dead. The best time to prevent losing out is before the insured dies.
Ask Before Death
If you want to know if someone has made you a beneficiary, ask her. Of course, that can be incredibly uncomfortable, as though you're greedy for the money, but it's an important step. Even if she doesn't want to discuss it, encourage her to put her papers somewhere accessible -- her desk, a safety-deposit box, the lawyer's office -- and let you know where to find them. Once she dies, this knowledge will make everything move faster.
Weed Through Piles of Paper
If you know your loved one had a policy, but not who the insurer was or where it's hidden, go through the deceased's papers. It may be carefully filed away, or stuffed in with unrelated bills. Even if you don't find the policy, payment records or letters from the insurer may give you a clue who to call. If not, a search service such as the MIB Group will comb through millions of records to see if the deceased ever applied for a policy.
Make Contact With the Insurer
If you find the policy or discover paperwork that indicates a policy exists, contact the insurer. If the policy exists, you can ask if you're a beneficiary. The insurer may tell you, or it may ask you to submit a form reporting the death. The company's next step is usually to mail out claims forms to you and other beneficiaries, asking you to submit them along with a copy of the death certificate. If you don't get a claim form, ask if yours got lost or if you're really not a beneficiary.
Search Unclaimed Funds
When an insurer can't find beneficiaries, it has to transfer the money to a state unclaimed-funds account. If the policy you're researching is more than a few years old, searching the unclaimed-funds website for the deceased's home state -- or one of several home states through the years -- may turn up the policy. Once you find it, contact the state's unclaimed-property administrator with a copy of the death certificate and proof of your identity. If you're a beneficiary, the administrator can tell you the procedure for getting the money.
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.