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Money September 2016

Dollar Sense

Vital Documents Gone Astray: You Might Be the Beneficiary on a Lost Life Insurance Policy

By Teresa Ambord

For example, a search of my dad’s name showed two small insurance refund checks that are available from over 50 years ago. The insurer provided a form to fill out and send in to claim the refunds.

Think you might be the beneficiary on a life insurance policy that got lost? Many policies were created before electronic records were available. If no papers were left behind or you weren’t informed that a policy existed you may be in for a surprise. Consumer Reports says the average lost benefit is about $2,000, and altogether, there are about $1 billion in lost claims today. Life insurance companies do try to find beneficiaries when a policyholder dies. States require insurers to collect Social Security data and to check frequently to see if a beneficiary can be located. Still, it’s clear that those efforts aren’t always successful.


What Can You Do?

You’ll ultimately need to have the decedent’s name and social Security Number (SSN), and former addresses if possible. And if you find a policy and you are the beneficiary, you’ll need to prove your identity. Here are some steps to take to locate a policy:

  • Search through the decedent’s paperwork for policy copies or statements.
  • Don’t forget to check safety deposit boxes or stored files.
  • If an insurance company is listed, contact the insurer directly. They might even have a tool on their website to search for a policy.
  • Search for policies in states where the decedent may have lived. If the company no longer exists, contact the state insurance commissioner about the policy.
  • Check with an insurance rating service about defunct insurance companies or companies that were acquired by another insurer and are operating under a different name. Check with the state insurance department to find out about the successor company.
  • Look for communication between decedent and company, even if the company handled other types of insurance (like auto or homeowner). If the decedent used email and you can access it, you might find clues about insurance policies there.
  • Check with the decedent’s former employers to find out if there were work-related policies.
  • Search unclaimed property files for every state where he or she lived. (More about this later.)
  • Search for a state-based missing policy locator tool, for each state where they lived. If a search using the decedent’s name doesn’t work, try searching the beneficiary’s name. Also if the name is commonly misspelled try variations such as McDonald spelled MacDonald. The older the policy the more likely this is to be a problem.


Online Sources

If you’re convinced there is a policy and can’t find it, you can always check Searchers will mine data for you, but… there’s a fee of at least $70. Unless you have more money than time, this should be a last resort as you can do the same searching yourself.

You may be able to find missing policies or other financial assets that have been lost or forgotten by going to Not every state sends data to this site, but for those that do, the search is free. It’s a simple matter of typing in a name. In addition to policy information, you may find refund checks or commission checks or uncashed payroll checks that can be reclaimed. Each entry will tell you what you must do to collect. For example, a search of my dad’s name showed two small insurance refund checks that are available from over 50 years ago. The insurer provided a form to fill out and send in to claim the refunds.

Again, not every state can be searched through But every state does have an unclaimed property office. Go to any browser and type in the name of the state and “unclaimed property,” then follow the directions.

Of course, to claim some assets, such as a life insurance benefit, you’ll need to provide a death certificate for the decedent, and be able to prove your identity as the beneficiary. If you don’t have a death certificate, go to the Centers for Disease Control agency, You may be able to get a copy there, but you’ll need to show a relationship to the deceased.


Replacing Vital Documents that are Lost or Destroyed

What should you do if you lose vital documents, like your birth certificate, Social Security card, etc.? There’s always a chance of loss by fire, flood, theft, or just loss of items in the process of downsizing. The good news is, you can probably obtain copies, though there may be a fee. Here’s information about replacing documents, based on an article by Jim Miller, the author of Savvy Living, and a regular contributor on the “Today Show."

Here’s what to do:

  • Social Security card: This is free, and depending on where you live you might be able to do it online. If you live in Michigan, Nebraska, Washington, Wisconsin, or the District of Columbia, go to Otherwise, go to, and print a copy of Form SS-5. Then take or mail the filled out form to your local Social Security office. You’ll need a U.S. driver’s license or a state ID card or a passport. You must present originals, not copies. For that reason, I would try to do this in person, not by mail, though they say they will return your originals to you. You can find your nearest SS office at, or call 800-772-1213.   
  • Medicare card. Call the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 or your local SSA office. You can also go online to request a copy, at It should take about 30 days to get a new card. Keep in mind that losing your Medicare card, as with your Social Security card, you’re at risk for identity theft and/or having your Medicare card used for Medicare fraud.
  • Birth certificate. Were you born in the United States? If so, contact the vital records office in your birth state. The office will tell you how to obtain a certified copy of your birth certificate, generally for a fee of $9 to $30.
  • Marriage license. You can get a copy at the state vital records office where the marriage occurred. You’ll need to provide your full name and your spouse’s, and the date and place of your wedding. The cost ranges from $10 to $30. You can go online to to contact the office.
  • Divorce certificate. You can get a copy of your divorce decree at the city or county office where the divorce was granted, probably for a fee of $5 to $30.
  • Passport. You can apply for a replacement at a Passport Application Acceptance Facility, such as a post office, a public library, or a local government office. It will generally cost $135. But be aware, a lost passport puts you at risk for identity theft, and needs to be reported right away to the U.S. State Department. You can do this online. Go to, and type in “lost passport.” You’ll need to fill out form DS-64. You should receive an acknowledgement by email or snail mail saying your passport is entered into the Consular Lost or Stolen Database.


Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

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