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Generally it is the job of family members to notify the insurance company of a policy owner's death. More than one-quarter of all life insurance policy benefits go unclaimed on death of the insured, because family members simply aren't aware a policy exists.

And missing heirs can be difficult to find, due to name changes after marriage or divorce, an unreported change of address or expired postal forwarding order after a move, and incomplete or illegible records. Military personnel are particularly vulnerable, given their transient lifestyle.

Policyholders may also be entitled to an unexpected windfall. As a growing number of mutual life insurance companies - including MetLife, John Hancock, Mony, Prudential and others - have converted from mutual to stock ownership, millions of current and former policyholders and heirs are entitled to receive stock and cash, in addition to policy benefits.

When John Hancock demutualized, it did not have current addresses for 400,000 policyholders. Prudential could not locate 1.2 million policyholders, and sixty million shares of MetLife were owed missing policy owners and heirs.

By law, unclaimed life insurance policy benefits and demutualization compensation are held in trust until claimants come forward. Government trustees recently took custody of $22.8 billion, of which less than $1 billion was reclaimed.

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