Don’t let life insurance proceeds go missing

It’s impossible to know what life has in store—just ask Joan Rivers who went in for a routine surgery recently and suffered cardiac arrest that led to her passing.

It’s uncertain when the inevitable will happen but you can at least provide some certainty about the future of your children and loved ones. Life insurance is a must if you’re a parent or if you have anyone depending on you financially. It was reported recently that in California 11 major life insurance companies agreed to pay $763 million to the heirs of deceased policyholders after it was discovered the companies continued billing customers for their policies even after they had passed away.

This agreement is the second in the last three years to be reached with insurance companies, which had previously agreed to provide restitution and do a much better job of locating beneficiaries after being sued by the attorneys general of several states for not paying out benefits to the heirs of deceased policyholders. This pattern indicates we all need to do a better job to ensure that the life insurance benefits we pay for come back to our heirs in the way we intend.

So how you can ensure life insurance proceeds don’t go missing? Here are five tips for making sure your heirs benefit from your life insurance benefits:

Be truthful in your application.

If in your application for a life insurance policy you have not been completely forthcoming about a major medical issue or your health habits (smoking, drinking, and so on), the policy could be declared null and void and your heirs would be out of luck.

Don’t let it lapse.

If your family is counting on life insurance benefits to pay the bills should something should happen to you, make sure you are paying the premiums timely on the policy. The policy lapses if the premiums aren’t paid, and your family could be left unprotected. As recently reported by the New York Times, it’s especially important to keep a decedent’s bank accounts open so that certain auto-debits can continue to go through—otherwise a policy unknowingly might not be paid, resulting in unintended cancellation.

Have a beneficiary backup plan.

Having a beneficiary on your policy who dies before you do is a recipe for disaster—and it happens much more than one may think. Designate a secondary as well as a final beneficiary for your life insurance benefits, and update them as the need arises. And if you have a trust, it’s typically recommended that you name your trust as the beneficiary of your life insurance benefits, rather than naming an individual or series of individuals (see a trusted attorney on whether this is the right choice for you).

Play it safe.

If you die because you engaged in risky behavior not covered by the policy or if you take your own life, it’s possible your heirs may receive only what you paid in premiums versus the full value of your policy.

Talk about it with your family.

The primary reason a vast majority of potential beneficiaries never see a dime in life insurance benefits is because policies were lost or misplaced and family members were never told of their existence in the first place. You should prepare an asset profile and keep it updated annually so that nothing goes unclaimed after your passing.

If you have a life insurance policy, let your loved ones know—and ask them if they have one too.