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How to File a Life Insurance Death Claim – 4 Step Guide for a Beneficiary

There are many reasons people buy life insurance, but there’s one thing just about every policyholder has in common. Should they die while the policy is in effect, they want to provide financial protection for their loved ones.

If you’re a life insurance beneficiary, you share in this promise of financial protection. But it’s not as simple as waiting for the policy’s death benefit to drop into your bank account. Even as you process the loss, plan for a funeral or celebration of life, and perhaps help settle your loved one’s financial affairs, you must file a life insurance claim.

Otherwise, you might not get paid. So learn how to file a life insurance claim and avoid common pitfalls along the way.

How to File a Life Insurance Death Claim

Filing a life insurance claim is a four-step process. Under normal circumstances, expect to wait up to 30 days for the life insurance company to process the claim. After that, you’ll receive the death benefit, a request for additional information, or an explanation of why the insurer denied the claim.

1. Gather the Necessary Documents

You need three documents to file a life insurance claim.

A Certified Copy of the Death Certificate

First, get a certified copy of the policyholder’s death certificate. You may need death certificates for other reasons as you work to settle the deceased’s financial affairs, so ask for several copies while you’re at it.

You can get the death certificate from the person or organization that confirmed the policyholder’s death. Depending on how and where they died, that could be the funeral director, a local medical examiner, or the medical provider who confirmed their death. If none of these parties has the death certificate, request it from the vital records office in the county or city where they died.

The Life Insurance Policy Document

This official document spells out how the life insurance policy distributes death benefits. It should include:

  • The policy number
  • The policyholder’s name
  • The named insured’s name if different from the policyholder — this is the person whose death triggered the death benefit payment
  • The death benefit amount
  • The policy’s beneficiaries

If you have access to any online account the deceased had with the life insurance company, you can find the policy document there. Otherwise, try:

  • Looking for a printed version in the deceased’s financial records
  • Calling the life insurance company
  • Calling the deceased’s financial advisor
  • Contacting the state insurance department

If you’re still stuck, the Insurance Information Institute has additional tips for locating a lost life insurance policy.

The Life Insurance Company’s Claim Form

The claim form is how you apply for life insurance benefits. Also known as a request for benefits, it asks for basic information about the life insurance policy, policyholder, and beneficiaries:

  • The policy number
  • The cause of death as listed on the death certificate
  • Your name and the names of any other beneficiaries
  • Your relationship to the deceased
  • How you’d like to receive the death benefit

Look for the claim form on the life insurance company’s website or with the paper copy of the policy. Call the insurance company if you’re having trouble finding it online.

2. Contact the Insurance Company & File the Claim

Once you have all the necessary information in hand, contact the insurer’s claims department and file your claim. 

Look for a Claims or File a Claim button on the company’s website. You should be able to download the claim form and any other required documentation. If the insurer allows you to file claims online, you may be able to fill out the claim form electronically, upload the death certificate, and submit the claim.

If the insurer doesn’t allow online claims, print and complete the claim form. Then, send it to the claims processing address along with the death certificate and any supplemental information required by the insurer. The claim form should show the processing address.

3. Wait for a Response

The ball is now in the insurer’s court. Its claims department needs to check that the company is obligated to pay the death benefit. Expect it to:

  • Confirm the policyholder was current on premium payments when they died
  • Confirm the policyholder didn’t cancel the policy before they died
  • Confirm the coverage term hadn’t expired if the policy was a term life product
  • Confirm the policyholder’s death wasn’t excluded — for example, that they didn’t die by suicide during the first two years
  • Confirm you’re a named beneficiary on the policy

If everything is on the up and up, this entire process could take just a few business days. At that point, the insurer notifies you that the claim has been approved and asks you to choose how you want the death benefit.

If there’s any uncertainty about whether the policy is valid or whether you’re eligible to receive the death benefit, several weeks could go by before you hear anything. 

Expect processing to take longer if the policyholder died during the first two years of the policy, known as the contestability period. During the contestability period, insurance companies scrutinize life insurance applications for evidence of fraud — a process that can take weeks.

Depending on how its investigation proceeds, the insurance company might need more information before approving or denying the claim. To minimize delays, respond promptly to any information requests.

4. Choose How You Want to Receive the Death Benefit

The policy’s claim form might have asked for this information already. Either way, you can choose to receive your entire payout in a lump sum or as an annuity — a series of annual payments over a period of years.

The lump-sum payout is tax-free. If the death benefit was $500,000, you receive a single check or wire transfer for $500,000.

An annuity is more complicated. The life insurance company invests the death benefit on your behalf and pays a combination of principal and investment gains each year for a set period, typically five to 20 years. 

The principal is that year’s share of the death benefit amount. For example, a 20-year annuity on a $500,000 policy would pay out $25,000 in principal each year, plus any investment gains. The principal portion of the annuity payment is tax-free, but the gains are taxable

Life Insurance Claim FAQs

Still confused about filing a life insurance claim and getting the death benefit? These are the answers to the most frequently asked questions. 

How Long Does the Life Insurance Claims Process Take?

It depends on the life insurance company and the circumstances of the policyholder’s death.

In many states, life insurance companies have 30 days to process life insurance claims. By this deadline, they must do one of the following:

  • Approve the claim and begin the payout process
  • Request more information, such as more details about the policyholder’s death than the death certificate provides
  • Deny the claim

A request for additional information doesn’t mean the company will eventually deny the claim. It could mean the insurance company needs more information to process the claim or that it’s making sure the policyholder’s manner of death isn’t excluded by the policy’s terms.

Once the insurer approves the claim, expect to receive the death benefit within 30 days. If there’s no processing delay, you should have your payout within 60 days of filing.

How Long Do I Have to File a Claim?

There’s no deadline to file a life insurance claim after the policyholder dies. If you don’t get around to it right away, don’t worry. You can still file even if years have passed since the death.

Of course, you won’t get paid until you file. And the longer you wait, the more trouble you might have locating the policy document or other important information that could support your claim, such as the policyholder’s medical records.

What Happens if My Claim Is Denied?

If your life insurance claim is denied, you won’t receive the death benefit unless you take additional action.

First, find out why the company denied your claim. The denial letter should explain, but if the explanation isn’t clear or you need more details, contact the insurer.

The most common reasons insurers deny life insurance claims include:

  • Death by suicide within the policy’s first two years
  • Death by a cause that the policy specifically excludes, such as skydiving or heliskiing
  • The policy lapsed because the policyholder stopped making premium payments
  • The policyholder canceled the policy
  • The policyholder knowingly lied on the life insurance application, such as by omitting information about a preexisting health condition

If you believe the insurer denied the claim in error, collect proof of the error. That might be a medical examiner’s autopsy report showing a cause of death that would be covered by the policy or medical records backing up the information provided on the life insurance application.

Next, file a formal complaint with the life insurance company. They’ll reopen the case file and determine whether they wrongly denied the claim. The stronger your proof, the better your chances of getting a different result.

Appealing a denied life insurance claim can be time-consuming. If you’re too busy to do an effective job or feel overwhelmed by the investigation, you can hire an insurance attorney to represent you. But this is an expensive prospect — hundreds of dollars per hour for several hours of billed work, at least. It only makes sense if you believe you have a good chance of success and the payout is large enough to justify the cost. 

Don’t see your question here? Check out our list of common life insurance FAQs.

Final Word

One of the most persistent myths about life insurance is that it’s hard for beneficiaries to get their claims approved.

The opposite is closer to the truth. Citing data from the American Council of Life Insurers, Money reports that life insurers deny fewer than 1 in 200 claims. That’s a success rate of 99.5%.

Still, getting a life insurance claim approved isn’t automatic. You need to confirm you’re actually eligible for a payout, provide all necessary documentation, and respond promptly to the insurer’s requests for additional information. If your claim is denied, you need to decide whether you should appeal.

It’s worth the effort. Filing a claim as a life insurance beneficiary ensures your loved one makes good on the promise they made years ago — that their death wouldn’t create a new financial burden for you.

Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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