Making a Life Insurance Policy Claim on a Missing Person

People go missing every day. Circumstances include suspicious activity, accidents, those who run away, natural disasters, and then there are unexplained disappearances where people just seem to evaporate without a trace: a walk in the woods, a fishing outing on a boat, an innocent solo road trip in the car.  

National Crime Information Center (NCIS) data indicates that more than half a million folks are entered into law-enforcement missing persons database and 88,000 active cases remain unsolved. These remarkable circumstances pose certain challenges to family members left behind, including claiming life insurance on the missing loved one.

Faces on the side of milk cartons, a driverless car sitting vacant with keys in ignition, a missed phone call at a pre-scheduled time.  The incidences surrounding missing persons are most confounding to those left behind.  It starts with worry, then leads to action – the hunt to find the missing person—that eventually peters out, then a stage of confusion, next moments of recognition and admission of reality, and finally a stage of mourning.  The questions, sadness, and longing never end, but eventually the realization that moving on is the only way of not standing still. Nonetheless, the unanswered questions remain and, in many ways, can be more painstaking because of the uncertainty; a part of us remains lost without closure.

Todd Matthew, director of case management and communication at the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, known as NamUs, said, “It's like trying to put together a puzzle and not having all the pieces” when describing the challenges of finding the missing.  He and his group have helped resolve more than 2,000 missing person cases, but the unsolved list grows at an even faster rate. NameUs currently has more than 14,000 active missing person cases.

According to NCIS, over 60% of all missing persons are over the age of 18. So, we’re talking about adults here.  While some have drug or alcohol problems, and others have mental health issues, it’s striking just how many people seem to have normal, well-adjusted lives, and then mysteriously vanish.  Here today, gone tomorrow.

As if a lack of closure isn’t tough enough for family members, a critical issue for insurance policy beneficiaries is how and when to determine when the lost are deceased?  This is a complicated issue and the answers can be equally vexing. Without a declaration of death, as a beneficiary you will not be able to make a successful claim on the insurance policy.  Finding legal counsel qualified is recommended, and better yet to find a lawyer who specializes in missing persons cases.

Insurance companies do not pay life insurance claims on missing persons. You’ll need a certificate of death and getting that issued can be difficult.  As a rule of thumb (though laws vary by state) a death certificate can’t be issued until the person is presumed dead, usually requiring a 5-year or 7-year waiting period.  Even so, the declaration of death isn’t automatically issued.  In fact, it often requires presenting evidence in court to have the death certificate issued.  Once issued, the death certificate acts as the “proof of loss” required by the insurance carrier.

Having appropriate legal help is necessary for any hope of obtaining an expedited death certificate, too. In some missing person cases, such as natural disasters where the body is simply missing, family members understandably don’t want to endure a waiting period. Accelerated legal proceedings leading to a death certificate issuance comes with a higher burden of proof and requires an even more detailed evidentiary resiliency, sometimes requiring arduous independent investigation. The legal process can be difficult, emotionally taxing, and yet necessary to making an insurance claim.

In summary, when someone you love goes missing it can be a life altering experience.  Even more so challenging is dealing with the legal complexities around receiving a declaration of death and having a death certificate issued to make a claim on a life insurance policy.  Anticipate that the insurance company will not pay the claim until a death certificate is issued and therefore work with qualified legal help before and certainly after the waiting period.