California investigates 10 life insurance companies over lack of payments to beneficiaries

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California subpoenaed MetLife, the largest U.S. life insurance company, to testify at a public hearing on May 23 about how it handles unclaimed assets that belong to beneficiaries.

The hearing mirrored a situation that MetLife found itself in last Thursday, when it appeared before Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty to answer questions on the same issue. (Here's more on the Florida life insurance hearing .) Today's investigative hearing in Sacramento before California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and State Controller John Chiang promised to be even rougher.

Later in the day, California also announced market conduct examinations of 10 large life insurance companies for failure to pay life insurance benefits to beneficiaries or the state after learning of an insured's death. MetLife, John Hancock Insurance, Prudential Insurance, Nationwide Insurance, The Hartford, Sun Life Financial, New York Life Insurance Co., Lincoln National Life Insurance Co., Aegon Group (which includes Transamerica) and Pacific Life Insurance Co. are under investigation.

Hundreds of millions owed in life insurance benefits

Jones says he has already uncovered evidence that for two decades MetLife failed to pay benefits to beneficiaries or the state after learning that an insured had died. (Here's more on why your life insurance company doesn't care if you're dead .)

During the hearing, California officials quoted academics who said that hundreds of millions of dollars in life insurance go unclaimed each year for one simple reason: The beneficiaries don't know the money exists.

Among the possible violations of California law listed at the hearing were:

  • Unfair claims settlement practices.
  • Failure to "escheat," or turn over money to the state, when beneficiaries could not be found.
  • Failure to adequately control and monitor dormant retained asset accounts, which insurers use to pool benefits that haven't yet been collected.

Paying themselves

"Do (insurers) use cash values to pay themselves premiums after the death of the insured?" California regulators asked in a PowerPoint presentation just prior to the testimony of MetLife, the sole witness in the hearing.

The insurer was expected to acknowledge - as it did in Florida - that it didn't use the "Death Master" file, a Social Security database of people who've died, until 2007, when it began matching the list against its customers' policies. The company has said that it hadn't used the database on a regular basis until the end of last year. The Death Master file has been in existence since the late 1980s.

However, MetLife spokespeople have denied they did anything illegal.

"Our priority is to pay insurance benefits to those who are entitled to them," said spokesperson Chris Breslin in a statement prior to the hearing. "When beneficiaries cannot be located, we turn those benefits over to the state."

A small percentage

Using the Death Master file during 2007, MetLife turned up $51 million in unclaimed assets that went to beneficiaries and another $32 million that went to the state.

While that amount may seem large, it is less than 0.2 percent of the $44 billion in death benefits paid on individual life insurance policies over the same period, which dates back to the 1950s.

"Our experience … has shown us that over 99 percent of life insurance claims proceeds are paid as a result of routine notification and claim submission processes," said Breslin.

$1 billion in life insurance unclaimed

At the Florida hearing on May 19, McCarty said he estimated that life insurers may owe beneficiaries and the 50 states more than $1 billion in unclaimed assets - money that is sitting in the insurers' retained asset accounts, which currently hold more than $28 billion, according to California officials.

A McCarty spokesman said the $1 billion figure came from Verus Financial LLC, a Connecticut firm that has been hired by 35 states to find unclaimed assets for state treasuries, and from discussions with other regulators.

However, even $1 billion is not large by life insurance standards. At of the end of 2010, life insurers' assets totaled about $5.3 trillion, according to Steven Weisbart, a vice president of the Insurance Information Institute.

"Total death benefits paid over the past 20 years are about $600 billion," says Weisbart. "In relation to that, $1 billion is 1/6 of 1 percent, or 0.17 percent."

Canadian life insurer Manulife, which owns U.S.-based John Hancock, has already settled with both Florida and California and agreed to change its payment practices in both states.



The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The NASDAQ OMX Group, Inc.



This article appears in: Personal Finance , Insurance

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