The state of Florida has put the squeeze on some of the nation's biggest life insurance companies to hand over benefits from almost 96,000 unclaimed policies worth more than $75 million -- money that might be yours.
But the vast majority of those unclaimed death benefits are worth less than $1,000 each, according to a state Department of Financial Services database. That's because most were sold as low-value industrial policies decades ago.
Five major insurers -- John Hancock, MetLife, Prudential, AIG and Nationwide -- reached settlement agreements with Florida and other states in 2011-12, after regulators accused them of failing to check the names of deceased policyholders against a Social Security death file in order to find and pay surviving beneficiaries.
"This is not over, not by a long shot," Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty told the Miami Herald in a recent interview, pointing out that Florida and other states are pursuing a potential bonanza of $3 billion in total unclaimed life insurance policies held by some 40 U.S. insurers nationwide.
Now, the insurance companies must regularly check the Social Security Death Master File to confirm policyholders' deaths and find their beneficiaries under the settlement agreements. If they cannot locate them, the insurers must turn over the unclaimed policies and proceeds to the state. So far, the value of each policy turned over to the state has averaged about $785.
The state then hunts down potential beneficiaries by listing deceased policyholders on a government Web page and by media advertising and sending out notices. The state has processed more than 10,000 unclaimed polices over the past three years, with payouts averaging about $1,450.
A spokesman for Newark, N.J.-based Prudential said a couple of factors have influenced the spike in unclaimed policies turned over to the state. Modern software technology has allowed insurers to identify more de
ceased policyholders on Social Security's death list, by focusing on transposed letters and numbers.
Also, the companies have waived their practice of requiring death certificates for unclaimed policies, including the industrial contracts sold door-to-door as far ago as the Great Depression.
"We were not holding [the benefits] illegally," said Bob DeFillippo, Prudential's chief communications officer.
DeFillippo said Prudential, which has handed over about 9,000 unclaimed death benefits to Florida with values totaling about $17 million, tracks down the vast majority of its deceased policyholders and beneficiaries. He said the unclaimed policies turned over to the state represent a "fraction" of Prudential's annual life insurance payouts.
"We don't get to keep any of the money," he said. "It's either paid to the beneficiaries or it's turned over the state."
AIG turned over about 71,500 unclaimed life insurance policies in 2011-12 valued at $31 million, with an average benefit of $435. Asked about the company's high number of unclaimed policies and low values, AIG issued a statement, saying: "AIG is among the industry leaders in ensuring that beneficiaries will receive insurance proceeds."
"In 2011, prior to receiving any regulatory inquiries, AIG began a diligent review of policyholder records, including matching records against the Social Security Death Master File to identify policies where the insured may be deceased but no claim had been submitted to the company," said AIG spokeswoman Linda Malamut. "As a result of this effort, AIG has paid more than $100 million to more than 22,000 beneficiaries" nationwide.
Florida and other big states such as California and New York began auditing insurance company practices five year ago, which exposed an industrywide practice of companies failing to pay death benefits to the beneficiaries of life insurance policies -- despite having access to the Social Security database indicating policyholders had died.
Regulators discovered 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 beneficiaries empty-handed. But company officials disputed that accusation, saying reserves were replenished once insurers discovered the policyholder had died.
Bottom line: Many U.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 MetLife routinely pays 99 percent of life insurance claims, and in the 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 policyholder 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 (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, spokeswoman for the state financial services department that 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.