Unlike many estate assets, if you’re looking to collect the proceeds of a life insurance policy, the process is fairly simple (provided you’re named as the beneficiary). That said, following a loved one’s death, the whole world can feel like it’s falling apart, and it’s helpful to know exactly what steps need to be taken to access the insurance funds as quickly and easily as possible during this trying time.
And if you’ve been dependent on the deceased for regular financial support and/or are responsible for paying funeral expenses, the need to access insurance proceeds can sometimes be downright urgent.
Here is an outline of typical procedure for claiming and collecting life insurance proceeds, along with some of the common hiccups in the process.
Filing a claim
To start the life insurance claims process, you first need to identify who the beneficiary of the life insurance policy is—are you the beneficiary, or is a trust set up to handle the claim for you?
We often recommend that life insurance proceeds be paid to a trust, not outright to a beneficiary. This way, the life insurance proceeds can be used by the beneficiary, but the funds are protected from lawsuits and/or creditors that the beneficiary may be involved with—even a future divorce.
If a trust is the beneficiary, the trustee will need to notify the insurance company of the policyholder’s death and provide them with a certificate of trust and a death certificate when one is available.
From there, the insurance company typically sends the beneficiary (or the trustee if a trust is named as beneficiary) more in-depth instructions and forms to fill out.
If more than one adult beneficiary was named, each person should provide his or her own signed and notarized claim form. If any of the primary beneficiaries died before the policyholder, an alternate/contingent beneficiary can claim the proceeds, but he or she will need to send in the death certificates of both the policyholder and the primary beneficiary.
While policyholders are free to name anyone as a beneficiary, when minor children are named, it creates serious complications, as a minor child cannot receive life insurance benefits directly until they reach the age of majority.
If a child is named as a beneficiary and has yet to reach the age of majority, the claim proceeds will be paid to the child’s legal guardian, who will be responsible for managing those funds until the child comes of age. Given this, in the event a minor is named you’ll need to go to court to be appointed as legal guardian, even if you’re the child’s parent. Therefore we recommend never naming a minor child as a life insurance beneficiary, even as a backup to the primary beneficiary.
Rather than naming a minor child as a life insurance beneficiary, it’s often better to set up a trust to receive the proceeds. By doing that, the proceeds would be paid into the trust, and whomever is named as trustee will follow the steps above to collect the insurance benefits, put them in the trust, and manage the funds for the child’s benefit.
Insurance claim payment
Provided you fill out the forms properly and include a certified copy of the death certificate, insurance companies typically pay out life insurance claims quickly. In fact, some claims are paid within one-to-two weeks of the start of the process, and rarely do claims take more than 60 days to be paid. Most insurance companies will offer you the option to collect the proceeds via a mailed check or transfer the funds electronically directly to your account.
Sometimes an insurance company will request you to send in a completed W-9 form (Request for Taxpayer Identification Number and Certification) from the IRS to process a claim. Most of the time, a W-9 is requested only if there is some question or issue with the records, such as having an address provided in a claim form that doesn’t match the one on file.
While collecting life insurance proceeds is a fairly simple process, it’s always a good idea to consult with a trusted legal advisor to ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible during the often-chaotic period following a loved one’s death.
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