Most people don't know the basic steps to file a life insurance claim.
Different factors can affect the life insurance claim process -- including cause of death, how long the policy has existed and whether the insurance company has all the information it needs to process the claim and issue a check.
In most cases, the process goes smoothly and quickly, says Tony Steuer, life insurance expert and founder of The Insurance Literacy Institute.
"It's pretty straightforward," he says.
See also: Tapping your own life insurance policy
Here are six steps to take when filing a life insurance claim.
1. Make the initial call.
When a loved one dies, you might need cash right away to fund the funeral, pay the mortgage or keep your lights on. So it's important to file a claim quickly. If the life insurance is a group policy through work, start by contacting the employer, the American Council of Life Insurers recommends.
Or, if you purchased the policy through a life insurance agent, call the agent, who can act as a go-between with the insurance company, says Jeff Root, an Austin, Texas-based life insurance agent and owner of independent life insurance agency RootFin.com. If you don't have an agent, call the insurer.
2. Fill out the claim form.
Once you receive the claim form, fill it out accurately and completely. The form is only a page or two long, but you'll need to provide important information about the person who died, including Social Security number and dates of birth and death. Every company is different. Failing to fill in all the blanks on a claim form can result in processing delays of weeks or months, Steuer says.
3. Attach proof of death.
You probably will need to submit a certified copy of the death certificate, which typically bears an official stamp from the state. To get one, contact the state vital records office in the location where the death happened and pay a small fee. In Minnesota, for instance, a certified death certificate costs $13. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides contact information for the vital records offices in each state.
4. Provide all requested documentation.
Many companies will request additional information. For example, American General Life Insurance Co. asks for a copy of an obituary or news article about the death, if available, as well as a copy of the initial life insurance contract, if you have it.
If you're making a claim for additional funds from an accidental death rider, you'll need to include proof of the accident, such as a police report.
5. Specify how you want to be paid.
When you submit a claim, you'll have to pick how you want to receive payment. Payment options that might be available, according to the American Council of Life Insurers, include: a lump sum, payments that include interest and are paid out on a schedule, a guaranteed income for life with the amount based on factors that include your age and gender, or payments of only interest with the original death benefit amount kept for another beneficiary when you die.
If you don't specify, some companies have a default payment method. For example, if you don't mark a box stating you want to be paid by check, MetLife will put the money in an account they open for you and send you a checkbook tied to the account.
A lump sum usually is best, Steuer says. "That way, you're done dealing with the company."
6. Wait for payment.
"If you file a claim within the first two years (after taking out the policy), there will be a wait," Root says. That's because the company will investigate if the death happened within the contestability period, a time frame in which the company can look for a lie or misrepresentation on the application, Root says. For example, if a smoker claimed never to have touched a cigarette and then died of lung cancer during this period, the company could refuse to pay the claim.
During an investigation, the insurance company will spend at least a few weeks looking at the initial application, medical records and autopsy report if there is one, Root says. If the contestability period has passed, and it's a straightforward case, you should get your money within a week or two, Steuer says.
The cause of death and other circumstances also can complicate matters. For example, if someone is murdered and the body is missing or the medical examiner has a backlog of autopsy reports, the family might have to wait. That's because insurers need to make sure claims are legitimate before they pay.
Says Steuer, "There can be delays."