A state settlement aims to recover unpaid death benefits.
Thousands of Minnesotans could be due some long-lost payouts as part of a $14 million settlement the state has reached with Prudential Insurance Co. over unclaimed death benefits.
The state Department of Commerce, which regulates insurers, announced the agreement Wednesday after a monthslong examination of the company. Prudential is one of at least 10 insurers the regulator has been examining in connection with companies being unable to find people due benefit payments after policyholders died.
Other settlements are expected.
Prudential, based in Newark, N.J., denied any wrongdoing. It is the largest life insurer in Minnesota with about 158,700 active policies.
Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said the settlement resolves the state’s allegations that Prudential wasn’t doing enough to locate people and should have been turning over unclaimed benefit payments either to the beneficiaries or to the state of Minnesota as required under state law. At issue was the accuracy and availability of contact information to identify policyholders and their beneficiaries.
“It’s exceptionally troubling that when insurance companies know someone has passed away, that there wasn’t an appropriate attempt to find the beneficiaries,” Rothman said in an interview. “This is a very important settlement for Minnesota. It corrects a very improper practice that these companies have been doing for quite a long time.”
Rothman said the exact number of Minnesotans due money from Prudential isn’t known, but that the issue could potentially affect thousands.
The unclaimed insurance benefits problem has spawned numerous lawsuits and settlements nationally. Minnesota opted not to join an earlier multistate agreement negotiated with Prudential and pursue its own “market conduct examination.”
Prudential spokesman Bob DeFillippo said the company has agreed to similar settlements with almost every state and that Minnesota was among the last. He and Rothman interpreted the settlement differently.
“There’s no wrongdoing here,” DeFillippo said. “This is a matter of taking steps to locate these beneficiaries. No one is accusing us of not doing what we were required to do.”
“We have been, and will continue, to cooperate with these kinds of inquiries,” he said.
The settlement required Prudential to review its Minnesota-related policies back to 1986 to see how many people have been missed. According to Rothman, Prudential estimated that up to about $13 million may be due to Minnesotans because it couldn’t find the beneficiaries of life insurance policyholders or of annuity holders, who either died between 1986 and 2010 or had a policy mature during that time.
Prudential will also pay $1 million to the state.
Prudential is to pay the $13 million either directly to beneficiaries or, if they still can’t be found, turn the money over to the state as unclaimed property.
People who suspect they are a beneficiary of a Prudential policy can call 888-850-9991 for help in claiming a policy.
The company also agreed to clean up databases and improve its techniques for identifying and locating beneficiaries when policyholders die. One of the new techniques it’s using, DeFillippo said, is a technology called fuzzy logic that takes into account transposed numbers or letters in names.
An investigative company in Michigan called Total Asset Recovery Services sued Prudential over similar issues in federal district court in Minnesota in 2011.
The unclaimed property problem goes well beyond life insurance companies. So far in this fiscal year alone companies have handed over to the state of Minnesota $60.8 million in unpaid certificates of deposit, insurance payments, death benefits and other sorts of financial payments people are owned but that have gone unclaimed either because the beneficiary didn’t know about them or lost track of them, or the company didn’t find people.
The orphaned funds are deposited into the state’s general fund and the state Commerce Department, which administers the unclaimed property program, tries to find the rightful owners.
So far this year, the Commerce Department has returned $27 million to people. It has received “hundreds of millions” in orphaned financial property since 1969, Rothman said. He said life insurance payouts, ranging from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, tend to be the largest.
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683