Monthly Archives: June 2013

Unclaimed property – Are you a beneficiary but you don’t know it?

Over the last five years or so, a study has been conducted to determine how insurance companies ensured that beneficiaries of life insurance policies were notified that a relative with a life insurance policy had died.

The study was initiated by California Comptroller John Chiang, who used a Connecticut auditing firm to examine the payment practices of 21 life insurance companies nationwide.  The Controller’s investigation “has revealed an industry-wide practice of companies both failing to pay death benefits to the beneficiaries of life insurance policies and ignoring their legal duty to turn the money over to the State for safe keeping.  Instead, companies would draw-down the policies’ cash reserves in order to continue collecting premium payments from the deceased.  Once the cash reserves were depleted, the company would cancel the policy.  Past audits also found that insurers did not routinely cross-check the owners of dormant accounts with government databases listing the deceased.  In other cases, companies had direct knowledge of the policy owner’s death, but still did not notify the beneficiaries.”

When questionable practices were uncovered, lawsuits ensued.  The premise of one of the latest was that insurers used the Social Security Death Master File to determine whether  those insured who had living benefit riders to annuities had died and, if so, they acted promptly to stop payments.  However, the Death Master File and other means weren’t used as often to ensure that beneficiaries of life insurance policies were promptly notified that a relative with a life insurance policy had died, and the funds from that policy paid out.

In the case of one recent lawsuit, the lead plaintiff claimed that he was notified only in 2010, four years after the death of the insured, and then only by the state of Illinois Treasurer’s Office…not by the insurance company.  He received only a small sum, and it wasn’t until June 2012 that a larger sum was paid, without a good explanation.

Earlier this month (June 2013), Mr. Chiang reached a settlement on behalf of the state of California and its residents with 11 insurance companies who had been found to have underpaid life insurance benefits.  The agreements he reached required the 11 companies to do the following:

  • Restore the full value of all impacted accounts dating back to 1995;
  • Fully comply with California’s unclaimed property laws and cooperate with the Controller’s efforts to reunite these death benefits, annuity contracts and retained asset accounts with their owners or, in many cases, the owners’ heirs;
  • Pay the policy beneficiaries 3% compounded interest on the value of the held amounts from 1995, or from the date of the owner’s death, whichever is later.

If the benefits are not paid to the heirs within a specified period of time, the law requires businesses to send the list of abandoned property to the state.  In California, the period of time is three years; it varies by state.  In many states, this has become a large source of revenue.  However, the states’ first goal is to return the money to its rightful owners.

Many other states have followed California’s lead, filed suits against the major insurance companies, and will also benefit from California’s settlement with those 11 companies.

To learn more about beneficiaries and estate related topics, go to



Defeat of DOMA – More federal benefits for same sex married couples

One of the many changes that that will affect gay and lesbian married couples is in the area of income taxes.

A February report by the Williams Institute,  a UCLA law school think tank that studies sexual orientation and gender identity law, found that “most married lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers pay more in income taxes than they would if allowed to file as ‘married, filing jointly’, especially for spouses with very different incomes.  For example, a working parent with taxable income of $60,000 a year and a stay-at-home spouse with no income would pay $2,900 more as individuals than as a couple. ”

The report goes on to say that “until now, working LGBT parents couldn’t establish legal ties to their spouses’ children, so generally were not able to claim child-related exemptions, deductions and credits.”  In this new post DOMA world, they will probably be able to establish legal ties and claim the tax benefits.

Another area in which they may benefit is that of Social Security.  When the first spouse dies, the surviving spouse most likely will be able to collect the deceased spouse’s Social Security if the amount is higher than theirs.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, estate tax is a third area in which these couples should see a major benefit.  In the past, when one person died, the other partner had to pay taxes on any inherited assets.  Now, as a legally married couple, when one spouse dies, all their assets could go to the surviving spouse without any tax penalty being imposed .

Finally, legally married gay couples should review any tax returns they filed since their weddings.  They may be eligible to amend their returns to file jointly and take other deductions that were not previously available to them.

There are more than 1,000 federal statutes related to benefits that, until now, were only available to married couples consisting of a man and a woman.  They will now be available to same sex married couples as well.

For more information about estate planning and other issues related to getting your affairs in order, go to


Defeat of DOMA has major estate tax implications

The Supreme Court today made a decision to strike down DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act); this will dramatically expand the access of married gay couples to many federal benefits related to tax, health and pension that have been denied to them until now.  This decision affects same sex couples in the 12 states and the District of Columbia which allow gay marriage; these couples represent about 18% of the U.S. population.  With the addition of California, the percentage will shoot up to even higher.

DOMA was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, and prevented the government from granting marriage benefits in more than 1,000 federal statutes to same-sex married couples in the states that allowed gay marriage.

One very important benefit of today’s Supreme Court decision is related to estate taxes.  Until now, same sex married couples could not benefit from married couple estate tax laws.  Now they will have the same benefits as all other married couples.

According to Yahoo News,  ” Eighty-three-year-old New Yorker Edith Windsor brought the DOMA suit after she was made to pay more than $363,000 in estate taxes when her same-sex spouse died. If the federal government had recognized her marriage of more than four decades, Windsor would not have owed the sum. ”

With the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down DOMA with a 5-4 vote, Windsor will finally be eligible for a tax refund, plus interest.

For more information about estate taxes and settling an estate, go to

Need a death certificate? Here’s how to get one.

Someone wrote to us at and said she needed help finding an attorney so she could get an original death certificate of a deceased relative.

A death certificate is the official certified document which is filed upon a person’s death.  You might wonder why she would need an original or certified copy.  There are several possible reasons; here are just a few of them.

  • To settle an estate
  • To end government services such as Social Security or Medicaid
  • To collect on an insurance policy

We may not know the exact reason she needs one but there is one thing that is certain; she definitely doesn’t need an attorney to get a death certificate.

Here are the simple steps that she, and anyone else who needs one, should take.  There are several websites that offer to help you obtain copies of death certificates.  However, those copies are not certified or “official”.

1.  Determine whether you are eligible to receive a death certificate.  In most states, you must be a surviving relative of the deceased, their authorized representative or executor, or a funeral director in charge of the disposition of the deceased.

2.  Find the contact information for the department of vital statistics in the state where the person died.  This department may be part of the state’s department of health and human services or the state’s records department.  Regardless of its name, it is where all births, deaths, marriages and divorces are recorded for that state.  You can usually find the contact information by searching the web.  You will need the mailing address for submitting a request and, if you have questions about the process, you should also find their phone number.

3.  Some states require a letter with a great deal of information about the deceased as well as the requestor.  Others have a form available online which can be downloaded.  Regardless of whether it’s a letter or a form, you will have to provide the necessary information and either mail it to the facility or take it there.

Here’s the information that must be provided:

  •  Full name of the deceased
  • Date of the request
  • Deceased’s date of birth and date of death
  • Location of the death (city, state, county)
  • The deceased’s gender – male or female
  • Your relationship to the deceased
  • Why the certified copy of the death certificate is needed
  • A copy of your driver’s license or, at least, your driver’s license number and issuing state
  • Your name and current address
  • Your handwritten signature

4. Write a check for the amount due.  Most states charge between $10 and $15 per certified copy and it usually takes a week or 10 days for you to receive the copy.  In addition, some states offer same day service for a higher fee.

5.  Place the completed application or letter in an envelope, along with any identity documents and a check or money order to cover the fee.  Also enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope in which the certificate you’ve requested can be sent to you.  Mail this material to the department address which you obtained earlier.

Although a lawyer may be very helpful in resolving many of the issues that arise after someone dies.  However, he or she is not needed if you only want to receive a death certificate.

For more information about death certificates, go to