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How Missing Person Life Insurance Works

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It’s entertaining to read about in a murder mystery, or to watch on a fictional television show, but heartbreaking in real life. Sometimes when people die, there’s no actual proof that the death occurred.

Planes crash in the water, their passengers never to be seen again. People are murdered, their bodies never found. Someone goes hiking and is never seen again.

If there is no body, can you claim missing person life insurance?

Can You Claim Life Insurance on a Missing Person?

A person may intuitively know that their parent, spouse, or sibling didn’t just run away and start a new life — but the insurance companies don’t.

After all, life insurance executives and employees have good reason to wonder if there’s a tragedy, a scam, or something in between.

Examples of Missing Persons Found Alive

Here are two stories that made headlines recently:

  1. Jose Salvador Alvarenga, 37, showed up in the Marshall Islands, 6,500 miles away from Mexico, where he was reported missing. He was presumed dead by many, after a two-week search for his boat — but instead, he was alive, missing at sea for 13 months.
  2. In 2013, a Pennsylvania woman, Brenda Heist, turned up alive after being missing since 2002. According to news reports, she left her family on a whim, allowing her children and husband, who she was divorcing, to believe she had died.

It isn’t known if Alvarenga had life insurance, but Barbara Heist did — and her family collected in 2010, completely unaware that their matriarch was still among the living.

These stories of dead people returning from the grave do exist, and insurance companies are very wary about paying out a policy when there isn’t a death certificate.

Insurance fraud is a crime that costs the industry hundreds of million dollars annually, so companies are naturally cautious,” says Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute, an industry organization based out of New York City.

Will Providers Pay Death Benefits Without a Body?

As you can imagine, if there isn’t a body, the bar for proving a death is pretty high. But life insurance companies will pay a policy without an actual body.

Here are the scenarios you’re likely to encounter if you’re ever unfortunate enough to run into this problem.

Immediate Life Insurance Pay Out

Policies could be paid out in days if there is ample evidence that your loved one is no longer living.

One of the most often-cited examples of beneficiaries receiving life insurance soon after their loved ones died was after the World Trade Center tragedies on September 11, 2001. Most death certificates were issued within days — and it’s been estimated that approximately $1 billion was paid out in life insurance policies for the victims.

With the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, even before the plane was located, some insurers, like Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, began making initial payments to beneficiaries of the missing passengers.

Life Insurance Benefits Paid in Months

Policies may be paid out in months or years if there is some evidence that your loved one is deceased, but a lot of unanswerable questions linger.

In that case, the insurance company will do some investigating to see if a death can be proven.

We do quite a lot of these cases for insurance companies, or interested parties in insurance claims,” says Tom Burnett, a spokesman for Wymoo International, a worldwide detective agency headquartered in Jacksonville, Fl. “In one of our recent cases, a wealthy individual was reported deceased in the Philippines, and the beneficiaries were U.S. citizens. In this particular case, we had to travel to the local area, interview residents, visit hospitals and cemeteries, and verify the authenticity of the death certificate. The conclusion, based on our evidence, was that the subject was alive and well, and no death benefit was paid by the insurance company.”

If the evidence of a death isn’t clear, but there’s a lot of compelling circumstantial evidence of suspected death, relatives can apply to the courts to have the missing person declared dead.

Even without going to court, and with questions still lingering, an insurer might pay out. Insurers base their decisions on mostly four factors:

  • The age of human survival has been crossed by the insured.
  • Possibilities of the insured being in any danger were high.
  • If the insured had a terminal illness or was suffering from deteriorating health at the time of the disappearance
  • Actions of the disappeared insured are inconsistent with their behavior.

But that last point — inconsistent behavior — can be particularly tricky to prove, and cases such as Brenda Heist’s, the woman who returned after 11 years, likely make some insurance executives pause.

Receiving Life Insurance in 7 Years or More

Without a death certificate, and if there are a lot of unanswered questions, in most cases, people will wait at least seven years. That’s the amount of time typically needed to pass before a court declares a person dead –and even then, there needs to be a healthy amount of circumstantial evidence to suggest it.

Seven years is a long time to wait to receive a financial lifeline that your insurance was supposed to provide. Unfortunately, there are enough colorful stories of con artists trying to bilk the system that even a frustrated beneficiary can understand the reluctance for an insurer to make a payout without a death certificate.

Life Insurance Scams Are Illegal

One of the more colorful cons has to be John Darwin, a resident of England, who in March 2002 was reported missing. Everyone thought the worst when his canoe was found.

His wife received more than half a million pounds in life insurance payouts — while he went into hiding. His spouse knew what was going on. The mother and father let their two sons believe their dad had passed away.

And then, five years later, Darwin walked into a police station and claimed he had amnesia. Nobody bought his story, however, and a year later, he and his wife were jailed for insurance fraud. Usually, the idea of life after death is very comforting, but for insurers, not in cases like these.

Call us today for a quote at 1-800-712-8519.

Doug Mitchell

Doug Mitchell

Doug Mitchell, CLU holds a BA degree in Finance from Auburn University as well as having obtained a Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU) designation from The American College in Bryn Mahr, PA. Doug has spent close to 30 years in the life insurance and financial planning industry and has held licenses to sell securities, long-term care insurance, health. Some other notable items about Doug: Top of the Table Million Dollar Round Table member (MDRT). (MDRT is a global, independent association of the world’s leading life insurance advisors) | Premier Partner with Lincoln Financial and Cabinet Member | Served two years as President of the Auburn/Opelika Association of Financial Advisors | Life Millionaire status at Horace Mann Insurance Company and was awarded the Life Agent of the Year Award | New York Life, Executive Council Member | Currently serves as President of Ogletree Financial, a life insurance General Agency. | Doug is also a financial blogger addressing the topics of life insurance, annuities and retirement income planning.

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