How to File a Life Insurance Claim

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When you lose a loved one, the life insurance payout may be essential for everything from covering funeral costs to replacing lost income. But even if you’re named as the beneficiary, you can’t expect a check to simply appear in the mail. You’ll have to proactively contact the insurer and file a claim. Here’s how:

1. Obtain several copies of the death certificate

You’ll only need to submit one copy of the official death certificate to the insurance company, but because you might need this for other accounts it’s generally advised to request roughly 10 copies at once. You can obtain the death certificate through the city or county clerk’s or vital statistics offices. Sometimes the funeral home can handle this for you. Expect each copy to cost between $10-20. You can get applications and instructions here:

2. Gather policy details

You can call the life insurance company without having all of the policy details in front of you, but finding the policy can save you time and frustration. If your loved one worked with a life insurance agent, they can send you a copy of the policy and help you navigate the claims process. Or if you know which insurance company issued the policy, you can call directly to start the process.

If you don’t have any policy details—and aren’t sure which company issued the policy—fear not. There are several places to sleuth for information: Start by looking at your loved one’s financial paperwork, online banking records, and safe deposit boxes (if you have access). You might find the policy itself or transaction details that indicate premium payments. If the deceased was your spouse, and one or both of you worked with an accountant or financial advisor, contact them. You or your advisor can also check your spouse’s tax returns from the past several years to see if there was any interest reported from insurance policies.

You can also call your loved one’s past employer, to inquire about a group policy that may have been issued through work. Keep in mind that many people take out supplemental policies beyond an employer-sponsored plan, so finding a work policy shouldn’t end your search.

3. Fill out the claim paperwork

Contact the insurance company, and they’ll walk you through how to file an official claim. Most people navigate this paperwork just once or twice in their lives, so insurers are prepared: Usually, the insurance company will provide clear instructions and have live agents to answer any questions. You’ll have to submit the death certificate, along with a simple form stating your relationship to the decedent and whether or not you are the beneficiary of multiple policies in that person’s name.

4. Decide how you want the settlement distributed

The insurance company will typically present several options for how to receive the payout. With a lump sum payment, you receive the full settlement amount in a single payment (usually a check you can deposit into your own bank account). With other options, the majority of the money stays with the insurance company for the time being, and disbursements are made on a specific schedule:

  • Specific income provision: The insurance company sends you regular principal and interest payments, until the claim has been fully paid out.
  • Life income option: You choose to receive regular payments that are guaranteed for life. The amount of each payment depends on the total benefit, as well as your age and gender.
  • Interest income option: You receive only interest payments earned on the invested principal, but never actually lessen the principal. This allows you to pass along the benefit upon your own death.

It’s important to note that death benefits are not taxable income, so opting for the lump sum payment won’t affect your taxes. But if you opt to keep the benefit invested, you may owe taxes on any interest earned on that principal. You’ll want to meet with a financial advisor to discuss which option is right for you.

5. Mail in the claim

Though you’re not required to return the claim form and certificate of death by certified mail, the extra tracking can bring peace of mind. Once submitted, processing generally happens in a matter of weeks.  

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