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Insurers Sue To Block Death Master File Search

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater’s campaign to force life insurance companies to search for beneficiaries won him a starring role on 60 Minutes. Now it’s landed him in Leon County circuit court.

Four insurance companies are suing Atwater and the Department of Financial Services to block enforcement of a portion of the new law.

Attorney Barry Richard says matching names on policies dating back to 1992 with the federal Death Master File would be expensive --- and it wasn’t required when the policies were written.  

“The government can’t pass laws that impair contracts that have already been entered into, because that’s not fair.”

For years, it’s been standard procedure to make beneficiaries come to the insurance companies when a loved one dies, Richard says. And he says it’s a procedure approved by state regulators.  

He stresses that his clients are suing merely to block the retroactive portion of the law.

Atwater spokeswoman Ashley Carr says some insurance companies scour the Death Master File routinely so they can stop paying annuities to customers who die. She says they don’t do it to find the beneficiaries they owe.

“We find it unfortunate that they have chosen to file a lawsuit to prevent themselves from having to pay benefits that we believe are owed to families, and are sometimes owed for several years.”

The new law will force insurance companies to turn benefits over to the state more quickly when beneficiaries can’t be found, Richard says. He says the move will mean millions of dollars in more revenue for the state.

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.