Business

Turning detective to track down lost life insurance

Historic picture of a couple at their wedding
Image caption Finding the paperwork for Thomas and Mary Hewitt's lost life insurance policy was a challenge

Have you lost or forgotten about an insurance policy, a bank account or pension? It could be among the estimated £20bn of unclaimed assets in the UK, but how easy is it to find it?

Rod Hewitt contacted the BBC about his parents' lost insurance policies. In his childhood, he remembers a man coming to the door each week and collecting money from his mother for life insurance policies.

For most of their lives the couple were making a cash payment every week. "This continued right up until they were 70, which was 21 years ago," says Mr Hewitt.

Lost assets

But a few years ago, his father Thomas, who has Alzheimer's disease, threw out all the paperwork - "and with failing memories, they couldn't remember the name of the company."

Rod Hewitt started to search for the policies, writing to a handful of the major insurers. He also tried the Unclaimed Asset Register, which is a paid service that people can access online to see if they can trace investments such as life insurance policies.

But his searches were unsuccessful, so he contacted the BBC's Money Box programme, which took on the quest.

Mr Hewitt explained that his parents married in 1945 and lived in Pegswood, a tiny mining village in Northumberland.

Money Box contacted a local historian, Robert Dixon, to see if he could provide clues to which company they had used.

He knew about these sorts of collections. He says it was usually the woman in the household who would pay the agent who came to the door.

"Normally this was the Co-op, and the insurance man was George Wade. He would come round roughly once a week. And he would know everybody, and everyone in the village knew him. He would walk up and down the streets."

Company search

There were other insurance companies operating in the area, most notably the Prudential. But the Co-op was the most active, according to Kevin Cassie from Pegswood Parish Council.

But when Mr Hewitt contacted the Co-operative Investments himself, he was told that they did not hold the policies. But the BBC contacted the Co-operative Investments, and asked it to look again.

This time it found five policies, worth about £3,000 in total. A spokesman from the Co-operative Investments says it is still investigating why the policies had not been identified when Mr Hewitt first enquired.

But it did confirm that the policies had not been passed to the Unclaimed Asset Register. Co-operative Investments says that for "whole of life" policies like the ones the Hewitts had, details are not given to the register until the policy holders 100th birthday.

Asset register

The Unclaimed Asset Register (UAR) currently has around 4.5 million assets registered from 85 companies which choose to co-operate. The UAR says it is estimated there could be up to £20bn of unclaimed assets in the UK, but it concedes there are no definitive figures.

"Organisations would usually register assets with us once they have reason to believe that contact with the customer has been lost, for example because the customer has been registered as deceased," says James Jones, of Experian, which runs the register.

"We don't see the value of the assets recorded but from research we've carried out we can tell you that the average find [of successful searches] is £6,000.

"We process around 600 enquiries per month and around 10% are matched to a possible asset."

To access the register online you need the full name of the holder, address history, date of birth and any other relevant details you may have.

"When people run a UAR search we will keep the details on file and re-run the search at regular intervals for the next six years, for no additional fee," Mr Jones says.

Assets are held on the UAR in perpetuity, as long as the provider is still working with the register.

Other tracing services

There are other places to look for a variety of unclaimed assets.

The government's Pension Tracing Service has a database containing 200,000 schemes, and can be searched free using an online form.

Banks and building societies have come together to offer a free search for lost bank accounts called mylostaccount.org.uk.

So far it has reunited people with around £500m. But it's estimated there is another £850m unclaimed.

For lost investment trusts, the Association of Investment Companies can help, or, to trace unit trusts, try the Investment Management Association - also for free.

Money Box is broadcast on Saturdays at 12:00 GMT on BBC Radio 4 and repeated on Sundays at 21:00 GMT.

You can listen again via the BBC iPlayer or by downloading Money Box podcast.

Have you tried to trace an old life insurance product? Let us know your views

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