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March 3, 2022

Life annuity providers across the US stare at unsettled claims and undisbursed proceeds referred to as ‘unclaimed properties’ that have been either lost or forgotten by the original owners each year. The total value of unclaimed property in the US is USD 49.5 billion. In fact, this is a global problem. These properties include abandoned savings accounts, tax refunds, insurance and trust distributions, payroll checks, dividend payments, and other types of valuable assets.

Regulators urge organizations to settle unpaid claims and have created several bodies that enable the tracing of rightful owners. A holistic approach that combines process and technology can work towards overcoming this escalating crisis. It needs the adoption of a mindful approach, tweaking the business models in insurance claims management—with a humane touch.

Life insurance and retirement accounts

Apart from life insurance, one of the principal contributors for unclaimed properties are orphaned 401(k) and individual retirement accounts. Employer-sponsored retirement plans sometimes automatically enroll employees unless they elect otherwise. Oftentimes, the contributions continue, while 30% of the employees are neither aware of the contributions nor their employer contribution matches. Employees who shift jobs—for better opportunities, M&A, closure of companies, or relocate—leave their contributions unclaimed. These assets are transferred after a dormancy period of three to 15 years to the state treasuries as unclaimed property. There are over 24 million 401(k) accounts holding USD 1.35 trillion in assets that and have a high probability of being declared as unclaimed properties. When finally, reclaimed, there is no market gain or dividend accrual for these assets.

Mobile American workforce

The American workforce is constantly on the move. On average, a person in the US moves residences 11 times during their lifetime. Reasons for relocations could be renting to owning, job relocation, better or bigger home, affordability, or change in family or lifestyle; it is also observed that their phone number changes every two years. Even the employer domain e-mails are changed with the career changes. All these conditions make it difficult to trace policy holders.

The way forward

The problem of lost connections and properties can be solved by a combination of different methods:

Process

The data provided in an application for insurance contains rich sources of information and can be used to track a policy holder’s retirement plan, career footprint, and thereby the current address. Mandated by regulation, insurance companies can take up the task of locating a policy holder or a beneficiary. This can be designed as a process model powered by the technology in insurance.

Technology

Insurance companies can use reinforced digital communication channels, United States Postal Service updates, social networks, and intelligent search methods. A plan participant choosing a retirement plan from a provider may often have other investments made in the same company, such as mutual funds, individual retirement accounts (IRAs), and so on. Undertaking strategic search tasks using a customer ID and intelligent, automated investigations can boost the probability of locating the policy holder or their assets. Additionally, facial recognition, social footprint, agency, or advisor networking can expedite the process.

Regulatory resources

Several regulations such as ’auto portability’ and government-sponsored tools like national association of insurance commissioners’ (NAIC) life insurance policy locator and the ‘abandoned plan search‘ database from the Department of Labor, enable policy holders or employees to locate and rollover previous accounts and policies. The major challenge is that the employees are unaware of such resources at the right time. While enrolling in a new plan after a job change, employees must be informed of their previous account balances. This can be automated using search tools and databases.

Opportunities from the proposed model

With technology and regulation supporting this critical business problem, there are lots of opportunities for fiduciaries and retirement providers to serve as clearing houses for retirement plans. Fund managers would be interested in sponsoring these exercises as they will have opportunities to manage large funds when the rollovers of abandoned assets are completed. Insurance companies could consider reinvestment opportunities if they can mandate a search at every touch point of sale or enrollment.

These value-added services will result in financial wellness for insurance customers, improve the corporate responsibility of the employers, and reduce the planned expenses for fiduciaries and providers. More importantly, this could contribute to retaining and enhancing the national retirement fund and liquidity.

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Vinay Kumar Patri is a Senior Business Consultant with TCS Banking and Financial Services unit and has over 15 years of experience in Insurance Industry and over 13 years of IT experience in the Life Annuity, Group Benefits, Retirement, Personal and Commercial Insurance. Patri holds a Master’s degree in Commerce and is a Fellow of Insurance Institute of India.

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