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Why A Life Insurance Claim May Be Denied

February 16, 2017

Life insurance can help replace earnings that would cease upon your death. It can provide a legacy for your children or grandchildren, and can even be used to make a charitable gift after your death.

However, the fact that you've purchased life insurance doesn't guarantee that the death benefit will be paid when it's needed most — after you've died. There are several reasons insurance companies may attempt to deny, or at least delay, paying a claim for the death benefit. Here are some possible circumstances when a death-benefit claim may be contested by the insurer.

Misstatements on the application

A clause that's commonly found in life insurance contracts is the incontestability clause. A life insurance claim may be denied if the insurer finds that the applicant made misstatements on the policy application and death occurs within two years of the policy's start date. If the applicant makes statements intended to defraud the insurer, there is essentially no time limit, and the claim can be denied no matter how long the policy has been in force. That's why it is very important to provide accurate information on the policy application and not withhold information or facts that are requested by the insurer.

A good example of a policy being contested involved actor Heath Ledger, who died within seven months of purchasing a $10 million life insurance policy for the benefit of his daughter. The medical examiner ruled that the cause of death was due to an accidental drug overdose. Subsequently, the insurer denied the claim on two grounds: The death was the result of an intentional drug overdose and amounted to suicide, and the insured did not disclose on the insurance application (as requested) that he was a user of illegal drugs, which is a material misrepresentation. The policy beneficiary sued the insurer, and the case was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount believed to be much less than the policy death benefit.

Suicide clause

Most life insurance policies contain a suicide clause, which generally states that no death benefit will be paid if the insured's death results from suicide within two years from the inception of the policy. Often, policy owners inadvertently restart the two-year suicide clause when they replace existing life insurance with a new policy.

Even in the unfortunate circumstance that death by suicide occurs within two years from the policy's inception, the beneficiaries may still be able to receive at least a portion of the death benefit, depending on the circumstances. For example, whether death is intentional (suicide) or by accident is not always easily determined.

Policy lapse

A life insurance policy may not be in force because the coverage has lapsed. Policies may lapse for several reasons, including nonpayment of the premium and expiration of a stated term. Insurers generally send written notifications when a premium payment is past due, when the policy is about to lapse, and when a policy has actually expired. Sometimes the policy owner may inadvertently or intentionally neglect to make premium payments. In any case, the insurance beneficiary may not realize that the policy has lapsed until after the death of the insured.

An insurer may deny payment of the death benefit when death occurs outside the policy coverage term. Term life insurance provides death benefit coverage for a stated number of years, usually from one to 25 years, depending on the policy purchased. This type of insurance is also common through employer-provided plans. In any case, if the insured's death occurs after the policy term has expired, the claim for insurance proceeds will be denied.

What can you do?

Nothing can be more emotionally trying than having a life insurance claim denied while dealing with the loss of a loved one. Here are some tips that may help get the death benefit paid.

Whether you fill out the life insurance application or it is completed by a life insurance agent, be sure you review each section of the application and answer each question honestly. Do not withhold or falsify information.

Pay the premiums on time. Indicate an alternative address for mailing the premium notices and also name another individual to receive notices of premium lapses. If you move or change financial institutions and don't notify the insurer, you may forget about the premium payments and the policy could lapse without your knowledge.

If you have group life insurance, verify that it is still in force at least once each year. Also, review your policy with an insurance professional. You may not realize that your life insurance will end on a certain date.