Florida and other big states such as California and New York began auditing insurance company practices five year ago, which exposed an industry-wide practice of companies failing to pay death benefits to the beneficiaries of life insurance policies — despite having access to the Social Security database indicating that policyholders had died.
Regulators discovered that life insurers were using the Death Master File to determine when annuity owners had died so they could stop making payments to them. At the same time, the insurers were not regularly reviewing that same list to verify when life insurance policyholders had died, so their beneficiaries could be compensated.
Some insurance companies also used the policies’ cash reserves to continue paying the premiums. Once the cash reserves were depleted, the insurers would cancel the policy, leaving the beneficiaries empty-handed. But company officials disputed that accusation, saying that reserves were replenished once insurers discovered the policyholder had died.
Bottom line: Many of the nation’s insurance companies were keeping the proceeds of countless death-benefit policies in their coffers after policyholders had died, according to state regulators.
“I think you can say the practice was ubiquitous, but there were varying degrees of [industry] knowledge of how much the practice was going on,” McCarty said.
“I think the industry has recognized that searching the [Death Master File] is the best way to go forward.”
MetLife, which turned over about 10,400 unclaimed polices to the state valued at $21.4 million, agreed with that assessment. Spokesman John Calagna said the company has implemented a monthly matching system by comparing its administrative records with Social Security’s list.
Calagna said that MetLife routinely pays 99 percent of life insurance claims, and that in past the company struggled with finding the policyholders of older industrial contracts because they lacked Social Security numbers. “In most cases, we had no evidence — and still have no evidence — that the insureds were deceased,” he said.
Under Florida’s settlements with the insurers, they are required to monitor for policyholders’ deaths by regularly checking Social Security’s list. They have up to five years to confirm any deaths and find beneficiaries through a last-known address.
If the insurers cannot locate any beneficiaries, the proceeds must be turned over to the state. The state’s auditor, Verus Financial, also regularly examines the insurance companies’ policy records to ensure compliance.
Potential beneficiaries can search the state’s public database (www.fltreasurehunt.org) to see if they are due benefits. The state also actively looks for heirs, and has found some whom the insurers failed to locate.
Once the pot of unclaimed money reaches $15 million, the state transfers some of it into a fund for public education. There is no time limit on making a claim; proceeds from life insurance policies dating back to the ’40s are still available for claiming.
Anna Alexopoulos, a spokeswoman for the state financial services department, which manages the unclaimed property list, said the state conducts its own record searches and sends out notices with claim forms to potential beneficiaries.
Among them: A Miami woman whose husband died in 2005. The woman, 66, who did not want to be identified, said her husband had a life insurance policy with John Hancock but she lost track of it in the turmoil after his death.
Hancock “should have said something to the fact that we have this money for you,” said the woman, who learned about the policy’s $13,240 in unclaimed benefits from the state in a letter last year. “They should have been more like the state.”
A Herald review of nearly 96,000 unclaimed life insurance policies turned over by the five major insurance companies that cut deals with the state shows that almost all of them have values of less than $5,000. Only about 2,000 accounts are worth more than that amount. And just seven policies have a value of more than $100,000 — including the highest one, a $189,360 Prudential death benefit in the name of a Cape Coral woman.
But overall, almost all of the unclaimed death benefits fall far short of today’s average life insurance coverage in Florida: $134,000, according to the American Council of Life Insurers, a Washington trade organization .