What happens to a life insurance policy when someone dies?

When someone dies, and you’re gathering together the money, property and possessions they left behind — known as their estate — the admin isn’t always in order. This can make things tricky, at an already tough time.

But where do you start if you’re not sure if they had a life insurance policy, and how do you make a claim if they did? Here are some of the steps you can take.

How do you know if someone had a life insurance policy?

If you think a relative or friend who has died had a life insurance policy, but you don’t have the policy documents, or know the name of the insurer, the first step is to check their bank statements. 

That way, you’ll be able to see their regular payments, and keep an eye out for direct debits to a life insurance provider. The payment reference is usually the policy number, so have that handy when you call the insurer. 

It’s also possible to ask for the release of data from the email account of the person who’s died, if you’re next of kin. Each email provider will have their own authentication process, but once you have the information, you may be able to search for emails about a life insurance policy.

If they had whole of life cover

There are exceptions, though. If their life insurance was for whole of life and not for a specific period of time, it’s possible they no longer needed to make regular payments, but the policy was still active. 

So, say they had over 50s life insurance with us. This is lifelong cover and, once someone is 90, or when they’ve paid premiums for 30 years, no more payments are needed — but the payout is guaranteed, whenever a valid claim is made. 

This is where you’d need to look for policy information or documents they might have filed away. If they had a financial adviser, or an accountant, you can ask them if they have a record of any life insurance policies.

If you don’t have a policy number

If you think they had life insurance with a particular provider, but you can’t find the policy number, contact the insurer with any details you already have. 

If you want to know if someone had a life insurance policy with us, we’d be happy to help — just get in touch. Though bear in mind we don’t have access to information about policies with other providers; we can only tell you about Aviva policies. 

If you’re not sure which insurer it was with — perhaps because it’s changed name since the policy was taken out — a good starting point is the Association of British Insurers.

If the policy was taken out a while ago

Some older policies may have originally been with a friendly society or financial mutual, which has since closed, changed name, or merged with an insurer. If you think this might be the case, you can get help with tracking the policy down through the Association of Financial Mutuals.

How do you make a claim?

If someone had life insurance and died within the term of their policy, you can make a claim with their insurer over the phone or online, provided you have the information needed. Here’s how to make a claim with us.

What will you be asked?

You’ll need to have some basic details to hand about the person who’s died, and any details you have about the policy. So that includes:

  • their full name
  • their date of birth 
  • their home address
  • the policy number

You’ll also be asked some basic details about you, including:

  • your name
  • your relationship to the person who’s died
  • your contact details
  • if you have grant of probate or confirmation

What else do we need to know about the death?

You’ll be asked other questions, including:

  • the date of death
  • the cause of death
  • if they left a valid will
  • if they had a wife or husband
  • if they had children

You’ll usually need to send the insurer an original death certificate. You can get copies of this from the General Register Office, for a fee, via Gov.uk. The insurer might also ask for medical information from a GP or specialist, or other legal documents — but don’t worry, the claims adviser will talk you through what they need.

How long does a life insurance claim take?

Once we've agreed to pay the claim, and we have everything we need, the payment can take as little as a week. 

But it does depend on us having the information we need to be able to decide on the claim, and a few other factors. We try to find alternatives to requesting a medical report, to prevent delays. That might mean speaking to a coroner or medical professional, or getting a clearer understanding from a family member. 

The best thing to do is speak to the claims adviser to get realistic timescales, based on your claim. 

If the life insurance policy was in a Trust, it can make the process quicker. A Trust sets out who the payout should go to, known as beneficiaries, and it isn’t counted as part of the estate. So the trustee can transfer the payout to the beneficiaries before grant of probate is granted. 

Grant of probate, or confirmation in Scotland, is a legal document which confirms that the executor has the legal right to deal with the deceased person's assets. 

According to Co-op Legal Services 1, on average, in England and Wales, it takes between nine and 12 months to get grant of probate and complete the estate administration process. Though it can take longer for complex estates, or at busy times.

Who gets the lump sum from a life insurance policy?

If someone makes a valid claim, the lump sum is paid into an account held by the executor of the will. That’s the person who handles the administration of the estate, which could be a member of the family, or it might be a solicitor or other professional personal representative, like an accountant.

The executor will distribute the money from the estate to the beneficiaries, according to the will, once they have grant of probate — along with paying any debts or other liabilities.

If the policyholder died without a will, it’s slightly more complicated, and their life insurance and any other assets will be paid out in line with the rules of intestacy.

What happens to unclaimed life insurance policies?

Unfortunately, life insurance policies sometimes remain unclaimed.

It might have been a policy held for many years, where the policyholder didn’t tell their loved ones they had life insurance. Or perhaps their close family are no longer alive, and there’s no obvious evidence of having a policy in their files.

There’s no timeframe for a life insurance claim. If a payout is due, it can be claimed. But there is a limit to how long an insurer can hold on to a policy once they know the policyholder has died. Once we’ve been told by a bank or building society that someone has died, we’ll hold on to the policy for around two years. 

After that, we pass it to the Unclaimed Assets Register (UAR), where money and other assets whose rightful owner can’t be located are held. If you think this might have happened to a life insurance policy you want to trace, you can search the UAR. It isn’t a free service, but you can also search for other lost assets from financial providers. Just bear in mind that if you’re potentially looking for a whole of life policy, it won’t be added to the register until the policyholder’s 100th birthday.

After 15 years, if a policy is still unclaimed, it becomes part of the government’s dormant assets and the money goes to charity. Though you can still make a claim on a policy that’s dormant, and we’d still pay out on a valid claim, no matter how many years it’s been dormant.

If you have a policy, tell them

The policy should be able to do what the person who died wanted; which is to help their loved ones financially with a lump sum payout when they’re gone. 

That’s why, if you have a life insurance policy, it’s important to tell your family about it, and which insurer it’s with. Leave the policy number and policy documents somewhere they can be found, with all your other important information. 

It might feel awkward to talk about it, but you’ll be making things a little easier for them, when the time comes.

Interested in life insurance?

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