How To Probate Life Insurance

If a life insurance policy names a beneficiary and the beneficiary is identifiable, the life insurance death benefit will be paid to the named beneficiary.  Life insurance proceeds will only need to go through probate in several unusual situations, requiring you to know how to probate life insurance.

What if a life insurance beneficiary designation is left blank or not filled out?

A life insurance beneficiary designation that is filled out is generally followed, although it is subject to challenge, which we wrote about here.  If the life insurance beneficiary designation is left blank, the death benefit is paid pursuant to the life insurance contract.  The vast majority of life insurance contracts indicate that, if there is no beneficiary entered, the life insurance proceeds will be paid the decedent’s probate estate, and thus subject to the plan of distribution of the probate estate.  In other words, a will or the laws of intestacy will apply, and the probate court will order the distribution of the life insurance.

What if the named beneficiary of a life insurance policy is dead?

If the named beneficiary is dead, did the death occur before or after the death of the insured?  If the beneficiary died before the insured, the death benefit will be paid to a contingent (also known as secondary) beneficiary.  For examples, in a typical young family situation, the spouse is listed as the primary beneficiary, and the children are listed as the secondary beneficiaries.  If there is no secondary beneficiary, the death benefit is paid pursuant to the life insurance contract, which typically pays the death benefit to the decedent’s probate estate.

If the named beneficiary dies after the insured, but before the death benefit is paid, the named beneficiary will have already vested in the death benefit, and the death benefit will be paid to the estate of the named beneficiary.

What if the named beneficiary of a life insurance policy cannot be located?

If the named beneficiary is known to be an actual person and is believed to be alive, but just cannot be found, the insurance company will typically hold the death benefit proceeds until the named beneficiary appears.  In some situations, however, the named beneficiary might be a fictitious person, or could be ambiguous such that it is uncertain who the named beneficiary is.

In such a situation, the probate estate of the deceased or the life insurance company could file a lawsuit to ask the court to determine who the proper beneficiary is, or to ask the court to declare that there is no beneficiary named, in which case the life insurance proceeds would be paid to the probate estate normally.

What if the named beneficiary of a life insurance policy is a charity that does not exist?

Under a concept known as cy pres, a court in some states can substitute one charity in place of another.  The cy pres doctrine would require the probate court to find a charity as close as possible in mission and scope as the charity that no longer exists.  A common situation is where the insured, for example a resident of Las Vegas, names a charity, such as “Dog and Cat Rescue of Nevada,” where no such charity exists.  “Dog and Cat Rescue of Las Vegas” exists, as well as “Animal Rescue of Nevada.”

Typically, a court would determine who should receive the death benefit, after notice to all possible candidates and an opportunity to participate in the proceedings.  Helpful evidence could be, for example, that the decedent had made annual gifts to “Dog and Cat Rescue of Las Vegas,” or named “Dog and Cat Rescue of Las Vegas” in other testamentary documents, such as a will.  The probate court would ultimately determine the recipient of the life insurance.

Find a Lawyer

Lawyer Locator Front End

Learn More

Global Lookup Frontend

Receive Updates

Contact Us

Lawyer Registration

State Registration Selector

Find Your Florida Probate Star

Orange County (Orlando)

Philip W. Gunthert

Broward County (Ft. Lauderdale)

Natasha M. Dalton

Pinellas County (Clearwater)

Matthew Weidner

Sarasota County

Dawn Bates-Buchanan

Hillsborough County (Tampa)

R. Todd Burbine

Palm Beach County

Nicole Quattrocchi

Lee County (Ft. Myers)

Scott Kuhn

Marion County (Ocala)

Katina Pantazis

Pasco County (Port Richey)

Matthew Weidner

Collier County (Naples)

Gregory J. Nussbickel

St. Lucie County

Romaine Brown


Niuris Bezanilla

Volusia County (Daytona)

Heather Caeners

Martin County (Stuart)

Jon L. Martin

Duval County (Jacksonville)

Long H. Duong

Sumter County (The Villages)

Matthew Weidner

Charlotte County

Matthew Weidner

Manatee County

Brice Zoecklein

Seminole County (Sanford)

Matthew Weidner

Monroe County (Key West)

Matthew Weidner

Osceola County (South Orlando)

Matthew Weidner

Lake County (West Orlando)

Matthew Weidner

Find Your California Probate Star

Los Angeles County

Stewart J. Levin

San Diego

Merwyn J. Miller

San Bernardino County

Fred W. Edwards

Ventura County

Naomi Stal

San Mateo County

Sally Bergman

Stanislaus County (Modesto)

Thomas Bonte

Orange County

Priscilla Madrid

Santa Clara County

Nicholas P. Jellins

Find Your Texas Probate Star

San Antonio

Gilbert Vara, Jr.


Grace P. Shoemakers


Kyle Robbins


Steven S. Boss

Grayson County

Jacob Pelley

Williamson County

Lorenza Cigarroa

Find Your New York Probate Star

Nassau County

Cyrus Shaw

Westchester County

Anthony Nigro


Inna Fershteyn

Erie County

Ruth P. George


Rudolf Karvay

Suffolk County

Marc Weissman

Rockland County

Ari J. Zaltz

Find Your Ohio Probate Star

Hamilton County (Cincinnati)

Jennifer R. Harlow

Franklin County (Columbus)

Eric McLoughlin

Find Your Maryland Probate Star

Prince George's County

Ralph W. Powers, Jr.

Calvert County

Zach W. Worshtil

Baltimore County

Jeffrey Forman