CHICAGO – Beneficiaries of unclaimed life insurance policies already have received billions of dollars – and others could be in store for some unexpected cash – the result of state actions forcing companies to locate heirs and pay them the money they are owed.

Nearly two dozen states have passed laws requiring companies to search for beneficiaries. Illinois is the latest to consider a version of the legislation.

The laws follow years-long audits and multi-state investigations of the top 40 insurance companies that revealed many of them held on to benefits, even when they knew the person insured had died.

More than 20 insurance companies settled with states.

Some companies are pushing back, against both the investigations and the laws.

Life insurance companies owned by Chicago-based Kemper Corp. are trying to block Florida’s law, one of the nation’s strongest, and are fierce opponents of Illinois’ proposal, which was approved by state lawmakers but still needs Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature to become law.

In lawsuits against the Illinois State Treasurer and Florida’s Chief Financial Officer, Kemper’s subsidiaries have argued that under their contracts with policyholders, beneficiaries have to make a claim to receive benefits.

“If states can interfere with existing contracts, it is a bad precedent for consumers and the companies that serve them and violates the U.S. and state constitutions,” Kemper said in a statement.

Most of the laws are modeled after a version drafted by the National Conference of Insurance Legislators and supported by the American Council of Life Insurers, an industry group whose members include MetLife, Nationwide and Prudential. The council is pushing for all states to adopt this “national standard” by 2017.

It said most life insurers have “gone well beyond what the law requires” to identify deceased policyholders and locate their beneficiaries. “We also think it makes sense for everyone in the industry to do the same.”

The laws require companies to cross check their databases against a federal database of the deceased, though they differ on when to start those checks. Florida’s law requires companies to check policies dating back to 1992.

In Illinois, insurance companies would only have to check their active, or “in-force,” policies. If a match is found, they would be required to use “good faith efforts” to search for beneficiaries.

The issue stems from insurance companies’ practice of checking the Social Security Death Master File to figure out whether policyholders receiving annuities had died. If a match was found, the companies would stop payments. But they wouldn’t perform the same checks against life insurance policies, waiting, instead, for beneficiaries to reach out to them.

In a small number of cases, beneficiaries were unaware of the policies, so companies would hold on to the benefit for years before forwarding it to the state as “unclaimed property,” or would deduct monthly payments until the money was gone and the policy was canceled.

The practice of checking the Death Master File for annuities but not for life insurance policies wasn’t illegal, but state officials, including insurance regulators, treasurers and controllers, found it deceptive.

Since 2011, companies including MetLife, American International Group and Nationwide have settled with states, paying out more than $5 billion to beneficiaries of unclaimed policies, according to estimates by the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation. They’ve also forwarded more than $2.4 billion to states, which continue to search for beneficiaries.

Roberta Berchtold, 62, of San Diego, was one of them. After having been denied payments on two of her deceased father’s insurance policies, received a check for $35,000.

“I never really trusted them,” she said.