What is the best evidence of death to claim life insurance benefits when death is disputed?

Life insurance protects us after our loved ones pass away, but only if we are entitled to its benefits. Unfortunately, dealing with a death can only be made more difficult by having to prove the death actually occurred. In order to protect all those insured by a particular company and to protect against fraud, life insurers will require evidence of a death before distributing life insurance benefits. This article outlines what courts have determined is the best evidence of death when it is disputed in a life insurance case.

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Introduction to Life Insurance Disputes

Although life insurance policies have varying terms and conditions, all life insurance policies require the death of the insured before they can be redeemed. In the most straight-forward case, someone pays premiums each month until the insured dies. Then, the policy pays out a sum of money to the insured’s estate or the beneficiary.

A claim is filed with the insurance company to redeem the policy—this is where the disputes occur. No two insurance claims are alike, and each claim is governed by its individual underlying policy. This article does not address issues with specific terms and conditions, but rather addresses the case where the insurer disputes whether death occurred at all.

If the claim is disputed long enough to make its way into a courtroom, the plaintiff (claimant) is required to prove three facts as a threshold matter: (1) the existence of the policy issued, (2) the death of the insured person, and (3) the giving of notice and proof of death as required by the policy. Wolff v. Allstate Life Ins. Co., 985 F. 2d 1524, 1534 n.13 (11th Cir. 1993); see also State Mut. Life Assur. Co. v. Wittenburg, 239 F. 2d 87, 90 (8th Cir. 1956).

Methods of Proving Death

Proving Death with a Death Certificate

The most intuitive avenue for proving death appears to be offering the insured’s death certificate, and generally the courts agree. A death certificate issued by an official or agent of the same place where the death occurred is prima facie evidence (prima facie meaning
“on its face” or correct until proven otherwise) of death in trust and probate cases. Fla. Stat. § 731.103(1). But that is the catch, a death certificate is only dispositive in trust and probate cases—not in tort cases.

An authenticated copy of a death certificate issued by an official or agent of the place where the death purportedly occurred is prima facie evidence of the fact, place, date, time, and of the identity of the decedent in trust and probate cases.  See Fla. Stat. § 731.103(1).  The caveat is that the death certificate is prima facie evidence of the fact of death only in probate and trust proceedings. See Great Southern Life Ins. Co. v. Porcaro, 869 So. 2d 585, 587 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004) (holding that death certificates no longer have prima facie evidentiary value outside of probate proceedings).

If the insurance company is a party to the probate proceeding, the beneficiary may be able to rely on the death certificate in the tort proceeding to enforce the policy. The beneficiary would need to attain the court’s finding of the insured’s death in the probate case, precluding the issue of death in later proceedings and requiring a future court to accept the insured’s death as already proven. Branca v. Security Benefit Life Ins. Co., 773 F.2d 1158, 1162 (11th Cir. 1985) (applying Florida law of collateral estoppel rules in a diversity action under an insurance policy)

Proving Death Without a Death Certificate

Under Florida law, the construction of an insurance policy is a question of law for the court.  Storfer v. Guarantee Trust Life Ins. Co., 666 F. 3d 1277 (11th Cir. 2012); Jones v. Utica Mut. Ins. Co., 463 So. 2d 1153 (Fla. 1985).  However, it is for the jury to determine whether the facts of the case fall within the scope of coverage as defined by the court.  Id. at 1157.  Most life insurance policies contain language that say “upon receipt of Due Proof of Death of the insured, [insurer] will pay the death proceeds to the Beneficiary, with policy definitions defining “due proof” as a certified death certificate; an order of a court of competent jurisdiction; or any other proof acceptable to the insurer.

In absence of a requirement in a life insurance policy obligating the beneficiary to furnish proof of the cause of death, the insurer may insist only that the fact of death be shown with reasonable certainty. North American Life and Cas. Co. v. Wolter, 593 F. 2d 609 (5th Cir. 1979) (holding that supplying insurer with death certificate was sufficient “due proof” of the fact of death) (applying Florida law).

If the matter rises to an issue of fact, a claimant must prove the death of the insured by a preponderance of evidence (meaning “more likely than not”). Firemen’s Fund American Life Ins. Co. v. Wohl, 334 So.2d 261 (3d DCA 1976). This can be done by either direct or circumstantial evidence. Id. at 262. Although it may seem strange, death is not always proven by a death certificate. Consider cases where people go missing in undiscovered or unsearchable areas. In cases like that, courts do not require a body to be found in order to redeem life insurance benefits.

Florida courts have held that in the absence of any policy provisions to the contrary, the death of an insured person may be proved by circumstantial evidence, and it is sufficient if there is a preponderance of the evidence, whether direct or circumstantial, on the issue of death.  See Id. at 262; Melbourne Airway & Air College, Inc. v. Thompson, 190 So. 2d 305 (Fla. 1966) (holding the proof of death in civil cases is sufficient if the circumstantial evidence amounts to a preponderance of all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the circumstances and the evidence is not reasonably susceptible to two equally reasonable inferences).

Once a case reaches a trial, the insured or beneficiary must prove to the jury that death is most likely to have occurred and that the beneficiary is entitled to recovery. If that is done, courts are reluctant to accept an argument on appeal that death is not certain. See generally Wohl, 334 So.2d 261. For example, in Wohl the jury had to rely on circumstantial evidence to reach a verdict. A vessal that was last operated by the insured and two companions disappeared one night when they supposedly went out fishing. The jury relied on that evidence to ultimately find that the insured must have died at sea on the disappeared vessal. The insurance company disputed whether death was proven on appeal. The court held that the jury’s particular reasonable inference drawn from that evidence outweighs every contrary  reasonable inference that could be drawn from the same evidence, and upheld the jury’s verdict.

If records of death (i.e. a death certificate or other documents accepted as proof of death under the policy) are deemed admissible, the burden shifts to the insurer to produce evidence that the records do not prove that the death occurred, or to introduce evidence that the insured’s alleged death was fraudulent.  Estate of Mohamud v. Monumental Life Ins. Co., 138 F. Supp. 2d 709, 717–18, 720 (E.D. Va. 2001).  At such point, the insurer may attack the accuracy of the death records to reduce the weight given to the records.  See Allahabi v. New York Life Ins. Co., 2000 WL 335553 at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 30, 2000).  In Allahabi, the insurer entered evidence that the doctor who signed death report did not ask for identification of the deceased, and produced other evidence showing suspicious death and unreliability of the foreign death certificate.  However, the insurer’s motion for summary judgment was denied because insurer failed to proffer evidence that the insured was not dead.  Id.

Similarly, in Mohamud, submission of a Somali death certificate and supporting Somali documents as proof of death were deemed to satisfy the insurance policy’s due proof requirement of a “certified death certificate,” where the supporting documents provided an abundance of admissible documentation of death.  Mohamud, 138 F. Supp. 2d at 709.  The court reasoned that adequate proof of loss is that which accomplishes the basic purpose of enabling the insurer to adequately assess its rights and liabilities and allowing the insurer to protect itself against fraud.  Id. (citing to O’Brien v. North River Ins. Co. of City of New York, 212 F. 102 (4th Cir. 1914)). Even when the insurer was unable to fully investigate the foreign death or show that the foreign death records were falsified, the insured was entitled to recovery under the policy.  Mohamud, 138 F. Supp. 2d at 720.

However, the court will analyze the evidence in its entirety to ascertain whether the foreign records of death are reliable.  See Minh Tu v. Mutual Life Ins. Co. of N.Y., 136 F. 3d 77, 81 (1st Cir. 1998).  In Minh Tu, although the insured produced a Cambodian death certificate as proof of death, the court considered (1) the financial difficulty of the insured when they assumed large insurance premiums, (2) checks found signed by the insured after his purported death, (3) no good reason for a trip to Cambodia, (4) and disappearance in a place where effective investigation would be difficult and dangerous.  Id. at 81–82.  In light of the evidence produced by the insurer, the court found the certificate inadmissible and held that claimant failed to establish sufficient proof of death.  Id. at 82.

In summary, outside of probate proceedings, beneficiaries may provide proof of death according to the policy (certified death certificate) along with other circumstantial proofs to make a prima facie showing for the fact of death.  Once the beneficiary provides prima facie evidence that the insured is deceased through the use of all available reports of death, the insured will then have the burden of production and proof to establish that the death did not occur.  The fact finder will likely consider numerous factors to weigh the accuracy and admissibility of the proofs of death if such documents are in dispute.  If the insurer cannot rebut the fact of death, summary judgment may be appropriate for the claimants.

Admissibility of Foreign Records to Prove Death

Generally, there is no dispute as to the relevancy of foreign records pertaining to the death of the insured, and many of the foreign documents can be self-authenticating.  Many courts find that foreign records purporting to establish the death of an insured can be properly authenticated under Rule 902(3), Federal Rules of EvidenceSee Minh Tu, 136 F. 3d 77; Woodley v. Monumental Life Ins. Co., 2000 WL 1721158 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 15, 2000); Allahabi v. New York Life Ins. Co., 2000 WL 335553 at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 30, 2000).  Florida’s evidence code has a similar authentication provision pertaining to foreign documents.  See Fla. Stat. § 90.902(3).  Section 90.902(3) tracks the language of the Federal Rule, and provides that official foreign records are self-authenticating if:

Executed or attested in an official capacity by a person authorized by the laws of a foreign country to make execution or attestation, and accompanied by a final certification, as provided herein, of the genuineness of the signature and official position of the executing person . . . The final certification may be made by a secretary of an embassy or legation, consul general, consul, vice consul, or consular agent of the United States or a diplomatic or consular official of the foreign country assigned or accredited to the United States.  When the parties receive reasonable opportunity to investigate the authenticity and accuracy of official foreign document, the court may order that they be treated presumptively authentic without final certification or permit them in evidence by an attested summary with or without final certification.

Fla. Stat § 90.902(3) (2013).

            Most courts require that the “final certification” be made by a consular official of the U.S. or of a foreign country assigned or accredited to the U.S., attesting to the genuineness of the signature on the records.  See Minh Tu, 136 F. 3d 77; Woodley, 2000 WL 1721158 at *3.  In Minh, the court rejected a Cambodian death certificate when the U.S. embassy indicated the certificate was not consistent with other death reports in the country, and a key witness admitted he never saw the body.  Minh Tu, 136 F.3d at 78–79, 80.  Likewise, the court in Woodley, denied Saudi Arabian death certificate because the seal of the U.S. vice consul was not supported with a signature of the vice consul or other employee of the consul whose name appeared on the seal.  Woodley, 2000 WL 1721158 at *4.  In other words, there must be some chain of custody and certification to authenticate foreign records.

Furthermore, Florida Statutes can be construed to make the certin foreign death related documents admissible.  An official written report or record that a person is dead, made by any officer or employee of the U.S. authorized make such a report, shall be received in any court, office, or other place as evidence that such person is dead.  Fla. Stat. § 92.31.  Because the consular officers are authorized to prepare certificates or other related documents related to the death of an American citizen, those written reports or documents would likely be admissible as evidence of an insured’s death.

Presumptively Proving Death in Florida

In the state of Florida, a person missing for long enough can lead a court to find that the person has died. At common law, seven (7) years of unexplained absence creates a presumption that death arose. 17 Fla. Jur 2d Death § 128 (citing Mutual Life Ins. Co. of New York v. Hamilton, 143 F.2d 726 (C.C.A. 5th Cir. 1944) (applying Florida law)).

If the proceedings are in probate court, the length of absence required to presume death is reduced. A person who is absent from the person’s last known domicile for a continuous five (5) year period without an explanation after “diligent search and inquiry” is presumed dead. Fla. Stat. § 731.103(3) (2007). Of course, proof of death by direct or circumstantial evidence before the five (5) years has passed is not precluded.

How to Protect Beneficiary Interests During Life Insurance Disputes

Coming to grips with the death of a loved one can be difficult enough without having to saddle up against an insurance company. Beneficiaries may run into problems redeeming a life insurance policy depending on the records that have been kept and how the insured passed away. As a beneficiary, you should contact qualified and experienced legal counsel before taking actions to combat an insurance company’s dispute of your life insurance claim.

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