Insurance is like a fire extinguisher. You sleep comfortably, knowing it’s there, but you hope you’ll never have to use it. If you do need it, however, it’s helpful to know what to do.

For a claim under any insurance policy, step number one is to notify your insurance agent that you have had a loss. He or she will tell you what to do next, and send along any claim forms that have to be filled out.

Step number two is to fill out those forms and submit them as quickly as possible. In the case of a life insurance claim, you may have to submit the policy document itself, along with the claim form and a death certificate. Insurance companies generally act very promptly to pay claims, but they can’t act until the paperwork is complete. Doing your share will accelerate the process.

Although your agent can assist you with the details, you’ll find it helpful if you’ve kept policies at hand. Life insurance policies, in fact, should never be kept in a safe deposit box. In most states, boxes are temporarily sealed upon the death of the owner. Although an executor can obtain access to the box to locate a will and insurance policies, the need to do so could slow receipt of the funds just when they’re most needed.

Here are answers to some common questions about life and health insurance claims:

Q: My father told me that he had life insurance, but I couldn’t find a policy after his death. What do I do now?

A: A review of your father’s checkbook may turn up the name of his life insurance agent or the insurance company. If it does, you’ll be able to get the policy number and file a claim. If not, visit the website of the American Council of Life Insurance for information on conducting a missing policy inquiry.

Q: My health insurance company sometimes pays my medical bills directly and sometimes they reimburse me after I pay the bills, why the difference?

A: Hospital bills, which tend to be quite high, are typically paid directly by health insurance companies. Doctor bills may also be paid directly, if the physician will accept direct payment; however, many don’t because it can take longer for them to receive the money.

Medical bills are most often paid by you, the consumer, with reimbursement from the health insurance company. There is typically a yearly deductible amount. Once that amount is satisfied, there may be a co-payment feature under which the company pays 80% of all covered claims and you pay the balance, up to a specified amount.

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