A family member dies. But you don't know whether he or she had life insurance. It's not uncommon for life insurance benefits to go unclaimed after a policyholder dies, says Steven Weisbart, senior vice president and chief economist at the Insurance Information Institute.

According to Consumer Reports, the average unclaimed benefit is $2,000 but some payouts could have been as high as $300,000.

Weisbart says the problem could be avoided if all policyholders told their loved ones about naming them beneficiaries, but they don't always.

Steps to recover lost policies

If you suspect your loved one might have had a life insurance policy and you could be in line for the benefits, here's what Weisbart recommends you do:

1. Look for documentation. Look through the deceased's files, safe deposit boxes, and other storage places and see if you can find any insurance-related documents. Call the agent who sold your loved one's his home or auto insurance policies. Ask the agent if he or she is aware of your loved one's having a life insurance policy.

2. Contact the deceased's employers. His or her employers may have records of any life insurance policies the deceased had through work.

3. Look through bank records. Look for any checks or automatic payments that were made to life insurance companies to cover premiums.

4. Contact the state's unclaimed property office. When a life insurance company knows that one of its insured clients has died but it cannot locate his beneficiaries, it must turn the death benefit over to the state where the policy was bought as "unclaimed property." You will need to know where the policy was purchased. Contact the comptroller's department in the state where the policy was bought and ask if it has any unclaimed money from life insurance policies belonging to the deceased.

The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administration is a good place to start. You might need to search every state where the deceased may have lived.

5. Check the MIB Group database. This is a database of all individual life insurance applications that were processed since 1996. A search costs $75 so you might want to be sure you're to find something of value.

Need to prove your claim

If you turn up a life insurance policy, you will need to prove your claim. What documentation you will need can vary from state to state. You might need to fill out detailed claim forms and likely will need a death certificate. If you are the beneficiary, the insurance company will send you forms you will need to fill out to be able to collect. "If you're not the beneficiary, they're not going to tell you anything," Weisbart says.