What Is a Death Benefit?

A death benefit is a payout to the beneficiary of a life insurance policy, annuity, or pension when the insured or annuitant dies. For life insurance policies, death benefits are not subject to income tax and named beneficiaries ordinarily receive the death benefit as a lump-sum payment.

The policyholder can structure how the insurer pays the death benefits. For example, a policyholder may specify that the beneficiary receives half of the benefit immediately after death and the other half a year after the date of death. Also, some insurers provide beneficiaries with different payment options instead of receiving a lump sum. For example, some beneficiaries can elect to use their death benefit proceeds to open a non-qualified retirement account or elect to have the benefit paid in installments. Death benefits from retirement accounts are treated differently than life insurance policies. The death benefits from these accounts may be subject to taxation.

While not subject to income tax, life insurance death benefits may be subject to estate tax.

Understanding Death Benefits

Individuals insured under a life insurance policy, pension, or other annuity product that carries a death benefit enter into a contract with a life insurance carrier or financial services provider at the time of application. Under an insurance contract, a death benefit or survivor benefit is guaranteed to be paid to the listed beneficiary, so long as premiums are satisfied while the insured or annuitant is alive. Beneficiaries have the option to receive death benefit proceeds either in the form of a lump-sum payment or as a continuation of monthly or annual payments.

Beneficiaries of life insurance policies receive the death benefit payment free of ordinary income tax, while annuity beneficiaries may pay income or capital gains tax on death benefits received. In either case, proceeds paid through life insurance or annuity death benefits avoid the cumbersome, often costly, process of probate, which ultimately leads to timely payments to survivors. However, for most policies and accounts, if the policyholder does not name a beneficiary, the insurer pays the proceeds to the estate of the insured, which may be probated.

Key Takeaways

  • A death benefit is a payout to the beneficiary of a life insurance policy, annuity, or pension when the insured or annuitant dies.
  • Beneficiaries must submit to the insurer proof of death and proof of the deceased's coverage.
  • Beneficiaries of life insurance policies receive the death benefit payment free of ordinary income tax, while annuity beneficiaries may pay income or capital gains tax on death benefits received.

Requirements for Payout of Death Benefits

After an insured individual or annuitant dies, the process of receiving a death benefit from a life insurance policy, pension, or annuity is straightforward.

Beneficiaries first need to know which life insurance company holds the deceased's policy or annuity. There is no national insurance database or other central location that houses policy information. Instead, it is the responsibility of each insured to share policy or annuity information with beneficiaries. Once the insurance company is identified, beneficiaries must complete a death claim form, providing the insured's policy number, name, Social Security number, and date of death, and payment preferences for the death benefit proceeds.

Beneficiaries must submit death claim forms to each insurance company with which the insured or annuitant carried a policy, along with a copy of the death certificate. Most insurers require a certified death certificate, listing the cause of death. If multiple beneficiaries or survivors are listed on a policy or annuity, everyone is required to complete a death claim form to receive the applicable death benefit.