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Life Health > Life Insurance

Texas insurer sues California

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A lawsuit has been filed in California that could have a major impact on the efforts by states to have insurers turn over the proceeds of billions of dollars in life insurance policies.

The suit was filed July 26 in Superior Court in Sacramento by American National Insurance Company, Galveston, Texas.

It is a countersuit to a suit filed by California Controller John Chiang against American National in May. The suit demands that American National consent to an audit by an outside firm to ensure that it is complying with state unclaimed property statutes, that is, making a substantive effort to determine if a policyholder has died, or, in the alternative, turn the money over to the state.

American National’s lawsuit argues that proof of death, and not merely a death, is the criteria state insurance law requires an insurer to use before paying off on a life insurance policy.

Moreover, the suit argues that California does not have the authority to have outside auditors use proprietary software to scan their books to see if they are complying with the state’s unclaimed property law.

The lawsuit also contends that the state lacks the “authority to enforce any obligation on the part of life insurers to affirmatively ascertain whether an insured is deceased by searching the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File (DMF) or any similar database.”

Other critical claims made in the lawsuit allege that state comptroller John Chiang “has no authority to challenge the status or change the company records and contractual relationships with its insureds as part of their audit under the state unclaimed property law” and that “death is not the triggering event for property to become due and payable for purposes of the unclaimed property law.”

More than 40 states are conducting audits of insurance companies. Chiang also recently filed suit making the same claims against Kemper Insurance Co. of Chicago, formerly Unitrin, the parent of three debit insurance companies, or those that issue small face-value policies.

However, a number of other insurers being pursued by state insurance regulators, state treasurers and unclaimed property agencies are looking at the claims made in the lawsuit and are poised to file similar actions, according to industry lawyers in California, Iowa and Washington, D.C.

Chiang claims that 19 insurers representing more than 50 percent of all the issued and active life insurance policies nationwide have settled with him. Chiang estimated that the settlements have an aggregate value of $266.7 million belonging to California beneficiaries, and an estimated $2.4 billion nationally. These include MetLife, Prudential, John Hancock, American International Group and Nationwide.

New York officials recently claimed that more than $1.1 billion in unclaimed life insurance benefits have been recovered nationwide after investigations of insurers for their compliance with state escheat laws.

Oral arguments are scheduled for Sept. 6 in West Virginia on a lawsuit filed against 69 insurers starting last fall, alleging they have failed to comply with state escheat laws. One lawsuit has been dismissed.

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