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The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe: Life Insurance & Making a Claim

If you’re anything like us, you’ll love a good ITV drama. The latest offering, ‘The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe’, told the story of married couple John and Anne Darwin.

In the four-part drama, which aired this week starring Monica Dolan, Eddie Marsan and Mark Stanley, John Darwin faked his own death to claim against his life insurance policy.

Bizarrely, the extraordinary tale is actually based on a true story.

The story began 20 years ago when John Darwin went out to sea in a canoe on March 21, 2002.

The couple claimed the money after John ‘went missing’. In reality, he was hiding out in one of his properties which was split into 15 bed sits. The couple conjured up a fraudulent scam to claim insurance, pensions and benefits – unbeknownst to their two grieving sons.

He coerced his wife, Anne, into lying to the police and their family, prompting a huge search of the North-East coastline, before John was eventually presumed dead.

John would stay holed up in the top bedsit, then at night he would creep into the family home via a secret doorway hidden behind a wardrobe. John stayed hidden for a number of years, continuing to deceive his two sons Anthony and Mark, before obtaining a fake passport.

The drama, which is told from Anne’s perspective, sees the pair pull off the shocking scam, claim on John’s life insurance and attempt to jet off to enjoy a new life in Panama.

After 5 years, the couple bought an apartment in Panama before realising they couldn’t get visas to live there, and their plan wouldn’t work.

John flew home, then walked into a London police station in 2007 and told officers he didn’t know where he had been for the last five years, claiming he had amnesia.

An investigation was launched but a photo then came to light of John and Anne posing in a property office in Panama.

In 2008, John Darwin was jailed for six years and three months after admitting eight deception charges. Anne pleaded not guilty, claiming John forced her to go through with the plan, but was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in jail for fraud and money-laundering.

Where are they now?

Midway through their prison sentences, Anne decided it was time to focus on herself after 35 years of marriage, and the pair separated then later divorced. After being released from prison, John Darwin moved to the Philippines and has since remarried to Mercy Mae, a woman 23 years younger than him. Sources close to the pair have said that John is very happy with his new wife.

Since her release from prison in 2011 and following her divorce from John, Anne wrote a book called Out of My Depth about the situation, with proceeds going to the RSPCA. Anne maintains to this day that she was coerced into the ‘fake death’ scam by John. She has spent the last years rekindling her relationship with her sons.

Why Having Life Insurance is So Important

As shown in the drama, having a life insurance policy in place is incredibly important if anything were to happen to the policy holder. It can be used to support your family, pay off the mortgage and cover any debts left behind.

This is if it is claimed legitimately, of course.

Life insurance is often something that many people don’t think they’ll need, or is unaffordable. At The Insurance Surgery, our team of experts can find you a life insurance policy that works for you and your personal circumstances, giving your family that financial lifeline should they ever need to claim against it.

If you have recently bought a house and taken out a mortgage, you will know first hand that mortgage advisors and solicitors strongly suggest that you take out a life insurance policy at the same time. This allows your partner to be able to pay off the mortgage payments should you pass away.

It is also incredibly important to have life insurance in place if you have a family and children to support. Making sure they’re looked after even when you’re no longer around should be high on your priorities.

Anyone with dependents should have a life insurance policy.

The Insurance Surgery specialises in finding a life insurance policy for you even if you have been declined elsewhere. It can often be difficult if you have a pre-existing medical condition or your occupation is deemed high risk. We know exactly which providers to approach for you.

With energy prices rising and the cost of living being difficult for many at the moment, it might seem like a monthly cost you would rather avoid. However as you get older and in some cases, more unhealthy, your premiums will rise and may become out of reach.

Getting life insurance when you are younger and keeping up with the monthly cost is the best way to protect your family in the future.

How to make sure your life insurance policy pays out

When it comes to making sure your life insurance policy will pay out, it is incredibly important to ensure all of the information you give your insurance provider is accurate. One of the main reasons why life insurance policies are denied is due to inaccurate information.

Lying on your application form can result in your life insurance policy becoming void and your family not being able to claim a penny against it, despite you paying monthly.

For example, if you have a medical condition such as diabetes, it is incredibly important to give the correct details about your history with the illness and how you manage it.

You will be asked a series of questions when applying for life insurance including things like:
  • Family medical history
  • Date of diagnosis if you have a medical condition
  • Any Medication / treatments
  • Height/ Weight
  • Age
  • Smoker status
It is very important to declare whether you are a smoker or not.

Giving incorrect details will leave your family in an incredibly difficult situation down the line.

Why else might a claim be denied or reduced?

Very few life insurance claims are rejected, but if yours is, then the insurer will supply you with reasons as to why. If all the information given was accurate, other common reasons can include:

The policy term ended

Term life insurance policies will have an expiry date (for example, they may be taken out over 25 or 30 years) and you will not be able to claim after that date.

Insufficient documentation

An insurer will deny a claim if you can’t supply all the documentation they require. If you’re having trouble tracing documentation, you can seek advice from the ABI or the Unclaimed Assets Register.

Deaths not covered by the policy

Some policies specifically exclude suicides, deaths caused by drug or alcohol misuse or by reckless behaviour. If you have a pre-existing medical condition that is not covered by your policy, and has been excluded, it will also be rejected if that is how you pass away.

It is important to read the terms of every policy carefully before you commit to it or before you file a claim. The Insurance Surgery will ensure you know any exclusions that have been added to your policy.

Unpaid monthly premiums

It is also important to ensure you pay your monthly premiums and don’t miss any payments.

During the covid pandemic, a lot of companies offered payment holidays if people were unable to work and struggling to pay their monthly premiums. However, these holidays are now finished.

Every insurance provider is different; however the general rule is that a policy will ba cancelled if you miss three monthly payments. Some companies do allow this to go as high as six monthly payments though. However, before a claim would be paid, the policy would need to be brought up to date.

If you are struggling to pay premiums, the best thing to do is to speak to your insurance provider to discuss your options.

If you disagree with the insurer’s handling of your policy, you can contact the Financial Ombudsman for assistance.

Life Insurance: Making a Claim


When you feel ready to make a life insurance claim following a bereavement, it’s important to take the following steps to ensure the payment is received as quickly and easily as possible:

1. Contact the life insurance provider

The first step is to reach out to the insurance company to notify them of your intention to claim. You will find this information in the policy documentation that you received when first taking out the life insurance policy.

You will also be able to find any contact information you need on their website. Many insurers now allow you to initiate the claims process through their website, which can be easier than calling or contacting the provider by post.

Quite often, insurance policies are taken out years previously and potential beneficiaries are unaware of what company the policyholder has used. It’s important to let your family know the details of any life insurance policy you take out, to avoid confusion down the line.

If you do find yourself in a situation where you do not have the details of someone’s policy, it can be helpful to check the deceased’s bank statements to see who they have been paying the premiums to.

When you contact the insurer, you’ll need to supply their name, their cause of death (which will be noted on the back of the death certificate), and policy number. You’ll also have to identify yourself and your relationship to the deceased.

It’s important to note that while anyone can start a life insurance claim, the pay out will only go to beneficiaries named in the policy or in the decedent’s will.

In The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe, you may recall scenes where the couple think their plan is ruined as without a body being found, there is no death certificate. The insurance provider tells them they must wait 7 years until a death certificate is issued. If you find yourself in a situation like this, it is best to speak to your insurance provider and the police before taking the next steps.

2. Gather documents required to make a claim

You’ll have to provide the insurer with the following documentation to officially make a claim:

  • Death certificate: You can obtain certified copies from the funeral director.

  • Completed claim form: You can obtain the form from the insurance provider themselves.

  • Policy document: a certificate of insurance should have been issued with the policy when it was purchased.

3. Receive the pay out

Payouts are typically processed quickly, often within a month and sometimes even within a few days. There may be delays if there is dispute or uncertainty about who the beneficiaries are, or if some documentation is missing and needs tracking down.

If no beneficiary has been specified in the policy and there’s no will (60% of people in the UK die without one) a court will have to name a beneficiary, which can complicate the claims process.

If this is the case and especially if there’s a dispute about who receives the payout, you should seek legal advice and possibly representation.

Additionally, sometimes a pay out will be delayed if the cause of death is unclear and needs to be investigated.

Taking out a Life Insurance Policy


If you’re looking to take out a life insurance policy, The Insurance Surgery can give you free, impartial advice to find a policy that suits you and your family.

Start the process today by filling in our online quote form here.