Too often, consumers are left with the sense that part of an insurance company's business model is to avoid paying out rightfully owed claims. A recent New York Department of Financial Services investigation uncovered just such a pattern of nonpayment and, hopefully, will spur significant progress to correct it.

More than $1.1 billion in previously undistributed life insurance benefits has now been paid out to customers nationwide, almost $400 million of that to New York residents, thanks to a push by the state to make insurance companies identify such situations. But it's pretty clear that the firms could and should have been identifying and paying these beneficiaries all along.

Most insurance companies regularly receive a list of recent deaths from the Social Security Administration, and use them . . . to stop paying annuity benefits that terminate when beneficiaries die. But often these same companies don't use the same lists to pay out life insurance benefits.

That seems a sketchy practice, at best.

Now New York has become the first state to direct insurance firms to use the Social Security Administration's Death Master File to investigate policies for which no claims have been made and identify eligible beneficiaries.

Other states, or even better, the federal government, should issue the same directive.

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New York Department of Financial Services officials say most of the policies have been forgotten or overlooked because they are not huge and were often purchased many years before the insured died. About 113,000 beneficiaries have benefited nationally, and about 26,000 in New York, at an average of about $10,000 per claim.

If you think you might be owed some money, go to and file a request to find out. Hopefully, it will be the insurance companies looking for the people they owe, and not the other way around.