How Do Life Insurance Payouts Work?

Life insurance cannot replace you — but it can ensure your family does not suffer financially after you are gone.

April 1, 2021

Because this payout can be crucial for your loved one’s financial security, make sure you get adequate coverage. It is also important for people who will get the death benefit amount to understand the process of filing a claim.

In this post, we take a detailed look at how to collect a life insurance payout in Canada after the death of the insured.  

Find out your beneficiary status

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When you purchase a life insurance policy, you can select a beneficiary, the person who gets a life insurance payout after your death. You can name anyone as your beneficiary, a spouse or partner, any other family member, or even a pet.

You can also name more than one person as the beneficiary. If you have multiple beneficiaries, specify what percentage goes to each one. You can also name one or more contingent beneficiaries. If your primary beneficiary dies before you, the insurer will issue the proceeds to the contingent beneficiary.

If you have bought an insurance policy, let the beneficiaries know about it so that they can file a claim after your death. After all, the last thing you would want is to pay thousands of dollars as premiums only to have the policy go unclaimed when you die.

If a loved one has named you as a beneficiary, you should know where the policy is located or at least the name of the insurer and the policy number. This information will make it easier for you to make a claim when the time comes.

What can a life insurance claim payment be used for?

Your insurer will pay the life insurance payout amount to your beneficiary or beneficiaries after your death. The recipient is free to use the funds however they like. They can use it to pay monthly bills or expenses such as college tuition fees or a mortgage. They can also use it to pay down debt, like credit card bills. If your family does not need the policy proceeds immediately, they might opt to invest it — in part or in full — for potential growth.

If you are single, you can have the death benefit paid directly to an institution as a tax-free gift by naming it as a beneficiary. If your policy does not have a beneficiary, the proceeds will go to your estate and may get taxed.

Understand the different payout options

The insurer will ask the beneficiary how they want to receive the life insurance payout amount. There are several options available such as:

  • Lump-sum

Most people prefer to receive the entire death benefit in a single payment because this option provides a lot of flexibility. You have complete control over the money and can use it as you want.

  • Specific income

You can choose to receive the payout in installments. This option lets you decide the amount of each payment and the time period over which you want to be paid.

  • Lifetime income

You can choose to convert a life insurance payout to an annuity. The insurance company will then pay guaranteed payments until you pass away. The amount of each payment depends on the death benefit amount, your gender and age at the time of the insured’s death.

  • Life income with a certain period

You can ask the insurer to make payments for life or over a certain period — five, 10, or 20 — whichever is longer. If you pass away within the specified period, the insurance carrier will make the remaining payments to beneficiaries designated by you.

  • Interest income

Some insurance companies allow you to keep the payout in an interest-bearing account and receive interest payments on a set schedule. The original death benefit can be paid to a secondary beneficiary after you are gone.

Life insurance proceeds are usually not taxable, but any interest earned on them is. So, if you choose to receive the payout as a lump sum, it is not likely you will have to pay taxes. However, there may be tax implications if you opt to receive the proceeds in installments.

Filing your claim

Insurance companies do not automatically pay the policy proceeds to the beneficiary after the insured dies. You will have to file a claim, which is an easy and uncomplicated process.

Here is how you can claim life insurance money:

  • Contact the insurer or agent

Get in touch with the insurance company or agent after the death of the insured. They will explain the process of filing a claim to you.

  • Get copies of the death certificate

A death certificate is the standard form of document needed to file a life insurance claim. The funeral director can help you get certified copies. Try to get as many of them, since you will need it for various purposes besides the insurance claim, such as for closing accounts, cancelling subscriptions, and filing income taxes.

  • Request claim forms

In most cases, you will be able to download the claim form from the insurer’s website. If forms are not available online, a company representative can help you obtain them. You will need to complete the claim forms and provide all the information asked by the insurance carrier.

  • Decide how you want to be paid

Some insurers pay the death benefit only in a lump sum. Others, however, offer several options. You will have to specify how you want to receive the proceeds on the form. If there is more than one beneficiary, each may have to file a separate form.

A life insurance payout amount is not taxable — but any interest earned is. If you are not sure which payout option is best for you, speak to your financial advisor first. You might not be able to change the settlement option afterward.

  • Submit the claim forms

Send the completed paperwork and a certified copy of the death certificate of the insured.

Once that is done, you must wait. It can take anywhere between a few days to a few weeks to receive the payout. However, if everything is in order, the check should reach you reasonably quickly.

How quickly are benefits paid?

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It may take no more than a few days to as long as a month to receive the payout. The amount of time it takes to receive the death benefit after submitting the claim depends on many factors, including the insurance company’s procedures and whether the policy is in the contestability period.

The contestability period typically lasts 24 months starting from the moment a life insurance policy goes into effect. If the insured dies during this time, the insurance carrier has the right to delay the payout while it reviews the medical records of the deceased to rule out misrepresentation.  

However, when the claim is filed after the contestability period and everything is in order, insurance companies usually process it quickly — in a week or two. They can face penalties if they take too long, so it is not in their interest to slow things down.  

More often than not, delays result from improper documentation and incomplete information. Therefore, check the claim form a couple of times before sending it to ensure you have not missed anything.

Are life insurance benefits taxable?

As a beneficiary of a life insurance policy, you may wonder, “How do life insurance payouts work? Is it counted as a taxable income?”

Generally speaking, the death benefit amount does not get counted as taxable income. That means if you opt to receive the policy proceeds in a single payment, it is unlikely you will owe taxes.

However, any interest earned on the death benefit amount is taxable. So if you decide to receive the payout in installments, expect to pay taxes on some of that income.

If the insured’s estate is named beneficiary, the individual who inherits the estate may have to pay taxes on it.

What happens to unclaimed life insurance benefits?

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It may come as a surprise, but sometimes beneficiaries do not know a life insurance policy exists in which they are named beneficiaries. In such cases, if the insurer comes to know that the insured has passed away, they will try to get in touch with the beneficiary.

Sometimes, however, that might prove very difficult. The beneficiary may have changed names or relocated several times, making it almost impossible to track them down. In those instances, the insurer will turn over the unclaimed death benefit amount to the state.

There is another scenario: The insurer does not know the insured has died. In such cases, the policy usually expires due to non-payment of premiums.


Proceeds from your life insurance policy can provide a financial lifeline to your loved ones. If you have taken a life insurance policy, let your beneficiaries know they are covered. And if you are the beneficiary of a life insurance policy, make sure you file a claim after the insured’s death and select the payout option that works best for you.

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