When is it “too late” to make an insurance claim?

Let’s say the insurance company denies your claim. They don’t dispute you had a covered loss, but they say you missed a deadline buried in your insurance policy requiring you to notify them of the claim within a certain time. Can they do that?

The answer, often, is no. But the devil’s in the details.

Virtually all insurance claims involve important deadlines. For instance, there can be deadlines to tell your insurance company about the claim, to provide the insurer with documentation about the claim, to appeal the insurer’s denial of a claim, or to file a lawsuit. Which deadlines apply and the effect of missing them depend on the details like the insurance policy fine print and whether the policy is subject to ERISA.

Because the rules can vary and the consequences of missed deadlines can be draconian, it’s critical to consult an attorney to know your rights and obligations. Here are some general examples:

Deadlines to notify your insurer about the claim. Most insurance policies require you to notify the insurance company of your claim within a certain time period. Sometimes it’s “as soon as possible.” Sometimes’s it’s a specific date, for example, within one year of the loss.

The consequences of missing a claims notice deadline vary, but, often, the insurer cannot deny your claim just because you missed the deadline to give them notice. If you’re in Washington State, most insurers can’t deny claims just because you gave them late notice – the insurer has to prove that your delay in giving notice hurt the insurer’s ability to investigate your claim. If your delay in giving notice doesn’t stop the insurer from investigating your claim, the insurer typically can’t use the late notice as an excuse to deny coverage.

That means if your insurer denies your claim because you gave them late notice, there is a good chance you could challenge the denial. But beware – this rule does not apply to every insurance policy, especially policies subject to ERISA.

Deadlines to provide the insurer with information about the claim. Most insurance policies contain language requiring the policyholder to cooperate with the insurer by providing information about the claim. That could include, for example, allowing the insurer access to your home for a homeowner’s insurance claim, or providing the insurer medical records for a disability insurance claim.

Many insurance policies contain no specific deadline for you to provide this information. However, insurers will sometimes give you an arbitrary deadline to provide information they demand. They may tell you they will deny the claim if they don’t receive certain information by a specific date.

Similar to the claims-notice deadline, insurers typically have to prove that your delay in providing information harmed their investigation in order to deny coverage on this basis. But there are exceptions, and it’s important to bear in mind that policyholders have an obligation to cooperate with their insurers, which generally includes responding to reasonable requests for information. And, as a practical matter, looking obstructionist rarely helped anyone’s court case.

Deadlines to appeal the insurer’s denial of a claim. Many insurance policies provide that, if the company denies a claim, the policyholder can “appeal” the denial internally. An internal appeal means the company takes another look at the claim and any new evidence the policyholder submits.

Policyholders often have deadlines, sometimes just a few weeks, to submit an appeal. In some insurance policies, the appeal is voluntary, so failing to submit an appeal on time is unlikely to affect your rights. Other insurance policies – especially those governed by ERISA – make the appeal mandatory. That means missing the appeal deadline can cause you to permanently give up your right to contest the denial or seek insurance benefits.

Deadlines to file a lawsuit if your claim is denied. If it becomes necessary to go to court to fight an insurance claim denial, it’s critical to know the applicable statute of limitations, i.e., the deadline by which you have to file a lawsuit. Failing to file suit within the statute of limitations can mean you permanently lose the right to go to court. Most statutes of limitations are at least year from the date of loss. But there are important exceptions that depend on the details. For example, many homeowner’s insurance policies require you file suit within one year of the date of loss. Also, ERISA-governed insurance policies typically have far shorter deadlines to file suit – sometimes measured in days.

The upshot is that filing a late claim doesn’t make it a foregone conclusion that you lose your right to insurance benefits. If the insurance company denies your claim because you missed a deadline, there are often steps you can take to contest the denial and, potentially, obtain insurance benefits notwithstanding the missed deadline. But it’s critical to have an attorney review the facts and your insurance policy to make sure you know what deadlines apply and the consequences of missing any deadlines.

Know Your Rights – ERISA Claim Deadlines

We’ve previously blogged about the importance of meeting deadlines in your claim for benefits under an ERISA-governed insurance policy.  Most ERISA plans have strict deadlines for submitting a claim, appealing the insurance company’s denial of your claim, and filing a lawsuit.  The deadlines are strict and ERISA is draconian about deadlines – missing them by even a day can cause you to permanently lose your claim with no recourse.

The good news is that the insurance company and ERISA plan have to follow their own deadlines in handling claims for benefits.  The federal Department of Labor, the agency with oversight over ERISA plans and insurance companies, has a regulation mandating ERISA plans and insurance companies subject to ERISA give ERISA claims full and fair review.  Part of this regulation requires insurers to decide ERISA claims within certain deadlines.

For claims under ERISA-governed disability insurance policies, the insurer must decide the claim within 45 days.  The insurer can extend this deadline by up to 60 days, but must show circumstances outside the insurer’s control in order to do so.  Also, the insurer must notify you of the extension before the initial deadline expires.  Even if the insurer gets the extension, they have to tell you the date they expect to decide your claim.

For claims under ERISA-governed group health insurance plans, the deadline depends on the type of claim. Urgent care claims must be decided within 72 hours. Claims involving an ongoing course of treatment must be decided within 24 hours. Pre-service claims must be decided within 15 days.  And post-service claims must be decided within 30 days. Like disability claims, these deadlines can sometimes be extended, but only under limited circumstances.

If the insurance company misses the deadlines, there are important consequences.  First, you’re entitled to file a lawsuit without waiting for the insurance company to finish its review.  That means you can have your case heard by a judge weeks or months before you otherwise might. Second, once you’re in court, the court may apply greater scrutiny to the insurer’s handling of your claim because the insurer disregarded the ERISA deadlines.

Importantly – and fairly – courts are holding insurance companies to these deadlines just as strictly as they hold claimants to deadlines.  In the recent case Fessenden v. Standard Reliance Life Insurance Company, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held these deadlines are a “bright line”.  Writing “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” the court determined that the insurer’s missing the deadlines by even a day violates the rule and allows the claimant to file suit immediately.