Can You Sue Your Insurance Company for Invasion of Privacy?

We’ve talked before about how insurers often hire private investigators to follow and investigate claimants.  While the purported goal is to find claimants who are “scamming the system” and faking a disability, investigators often employ invasive tactics in their attempts to gather videos and other information requested by insurers.

Unfortunately, all too often investigators go too far and claimants feel threatened or endangered by these investigators’ actions. The question then arises–at what point do insurance companies become legally liable for the actions of investigators that they hired?  Can you sue your insurance company for invasion of privacy?

At least one court thinks so. In Dishman v. Unum Life Insurance Company of America, 269 F.3d 974 (9th Cir. 2001), the Court agreed with Dishman that he could sue Unum for tortious invasion of privacy committed by investigative firms hired by Unum. In this case, the investigative firms in question aggressively attempted to find out employment information on Dishman by (1) falsely claiming to be a bank loan officer; (2) telling neighbors and acquaintances that Dishman had volunteered to coach a basketball team and using that as a pretext to request background information about Dishman; (3) successfully obtaining personal credit card information and travel itineraries by impersonating Dishman; (4) falsely identifying themselves when they were caught photographing Dishman’s residence; and (5) repeatedly calling Dishman’s house and either hanging up or harassing the person who answered for information about Dishman.

Because the underlying Unum disability insurance policy was an ERISA policy, the Court assessed whether Dishman’s invasion of privacy claim (which was based on California law) was precluded by statutory language which states that ERISA “shall supersede any and all state laws insofar as they . . . relate to any employee benefit plan.” 29 U.S.C. Sec. 1144 (a).  The Court, in its decision, went on to discuss a lack of consensus on this issue, but ultimately ruled that, in this particular instance, “[t]hough there is clearly some relationship between the conduct alleged and the administration of the plan, it is not enough of a relationship to warrant preemption” of state tort law, because Dishman’s “damages for invasion of privacy remain whether or not Unum ultimately pays his claim.” In other words, the Court explained, ERISA law does not provide Unum with blanket immunity for “garden variety tort[s] which only peripherally impact plan administration.”

It should be noted the Court in Dishman cautioned that there is no consensus regarding how far ERISA reaches, and not every disability is governed by ERISA, so not every court will necessarily reach the same conclusion as the Dishman court. This is a complicated area of the law, and whether or not you can sue your insurer for invasion of privacy will largely depend on the facts of the case, the type of policy you have, whether your jurisdiction recognizes an “invasion of privacy” cause of action, and the existing case law in your jurisdiction.

Information offered purely for general informational purposes and not intended to create an attorney-client relationship.  Anyone reading this post should not act on any information contained herein without seeking professional counsel from an attorney.

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Why You Can’t Blindly Rely on Your Agent to Choose the Right Policy for You

In earlier posts we’ve discussed how agents don’t have the authority to change, delete, or add provisions to a policy.  We’ve also discussed how most policy applications now contain language stating that you cannot rely upon representations made by agents regarding the scope of coverage, or eligibility for coverage.  Thus, while agents can provide helpful advice and help to point you in the direction of a policy that may fit your needs, it is ultimately up to you, the purchaser, to review your policy, become familiar with the provisions of the policy, and confirm that you are in fact purchasing the coverage that you expected to receive.

If you don’t take the time to do this, and blindly pay premiums without reviewing your policy first, you could end up paying for coverage that provides less protection than you thought you were getting when you applied for the policy.  For example, most physicians and dentists know that their disability insurance policies should be “own occupation”, meaning a policyholder is considered totally disabled (and eligible to collect benefits) when he or she can no longer work in his or her profession, versus being unable to work at all, in any profession.  In some policies, own occupation is further defined as being unable to practice in a particular medical or dental specialty (i.e. anesthesiologist, periodontist, etc.).

Quite often physicians and dentists decide to buy another policy, either because they let a previous one lapse, or because they want to purchase additional coverage as their income increases and they can afford higher premiums, and they ask their agent for a new policy with the “same coverage”.  This can be incredibly difficult or impossible to achieve, because over time policies have evolved to become more restrictive, and each company has variations on what they deem an “own occupation” policy.  Consequently, while your agent may present you with a policy that contains the phrase “own occupation”, it may not be a true own occupation policy at all.

For example, some policies are actually conversion policies, which mean they start out as “own occupation” policies, but after a certain time frame (e.g 2 years, or 5 years), they change to an “any occupation” policy, which means that, in order to continue receiving benefits, you would have to show that you can’t work at all.  This can be very difficult to prove, particularly if you worked in another capacity for all or some of the prior “own occupation” period.

Even if your agent does locate an own occupation plan with similar premiums and benefit amounts to an older policy, there may also be provisions that cancel each other out in the new and old policies.  One scenario we’ve seen is a policy containing the provision that a claimant must not be working (a “no work” provision) in their own occupation or another profession in order to collect benefits, while the second policy states that a claimant must not be working in their own occupation but must be working in another field in order to collect benefits (a “work provision”).  Under this scenario, in essence, one of the policies you’ve been paying years of premiums for is worthless, as both requirements cannot be met at once.

These examples highlight why it is important that you do more than just check an “own-occupation” box on your application and/or blindly rely on your agent’s assurance that a new policy is compatible and/or the same as an existing one.  If you end up with a policy you essentially cannot use, your recourse is limited, as insurance companies have gone to significant lengths to shield themselves from any liability based on an agent’s representations of a policy.  It is therefore far better to take the time to review your policy at the outset, before you pay years of premiums, to ensure that it provides the coverage that you applied for and need.

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The Importance of Reviewing Your Policy Application

In our last post we discussed why you should not rely solely on your agent’s representations when purchasing a new disability policy. It is similarly important that you not rely solely on your agent to complete the policy application.

While an agent may offer to help you by filling out the application, this could end up negatively impacting a future claim or even voiding your policy down the road, if the application contains any errors or omissions.  As explained in our prior posts, while it may seem like telephone interviewers, licensed representatives, agents, and medical examiners have significant control over the application process and whether you receive a policy, many applications have language that explicitly limits your ability to rely upon representations made by such individuals, and expressly places the burden of reviewing the application for accuracy upon you (regardless of who completed the application).  Below is a sample of policy language:

 

Thus, you may speak with several people during the application process, and give them the requested information, but it is ultimately up to you to make sure the information provided to the insurance company is correct.  It is therefore very important that you read through your application carefully to make sure it is complete and accurate before signing.

It is also very important that you carefully review your policy when you receive it from the insurance company, and not just file it away without a second thought.  When you receive your copy of the full policy, it will typically contain language stating that you have a certain time period (e.g. 10 or 30 days) to review the policy and return it to be voided if it does not contain the terms you expected.  This clause will normally be found on the first page of the policy, and typically looks something like this:

If you decide to keep your policy and do not send it back within this review period, you are bound by all provisions of the policy, regardless of whether you are actually aware of them or not.  For instance, if you asked your agent for a certain provision and/or requested it on your application, but the insurance company omits it for some reason, and you don’t catch it during this review period, you may end up paying years of premiums for coverage that is different than what you thought you had purchased.  Similarly, if your policy contains an unfavorable provision that you didn’t know was going to be in the policy, you will still be bound by it unless you return the policy.

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How Insurance Companies Distance Themselves from Agents (And Why It Matters)

Reading through contracts, especially lengthy insurance ones, can be time consuming. Many policies contain confusing language, terms of art, and often include supplemental riders that change the terms or definitions contained in the main body of the policy.  But if you don’t read your policy until it’s time for you to file a claim, you may be caught off-guard by what your policy actually says.  This next series of posts will discuss the importance of taking the time to read through your policy, and will review some things to watch out for when you buy a disability insurance policy.

Dentists and physicians are often swamped with work, and rely heavily on insurance agents when selecting and purchasing a policy.  One scenario we commonly see is doctors requesting a policy that is “the same” policy that the other doctors in the practice have. Another common scenario is the doctor who wants more coverage and just asks his or her agent for another policy that is “like” his or her existing policy, or has the “same coverage” as his or her existing policy.  What they don’t realize is that some of the same favorable terms may no longer be available in today’s policies.  For example, while most older policies contained “true own occupation” provisions, there are now several different variations of “own occupation” provisions, so if you just ask for an “own occupation” policy, you may not actually be receiving the coverage that you think you are.

It is also important to be aware that, over the years, insurers have sought to distance themselves from agents and now often go so far as to include clauses or statements in their policies and applications that state no agent or broker has the authority to determine insurability or make, change, or discharge any contract requirement.  Here’s an example of this type of policy language:

So what does this mean?  It means that, while solely relying upon an agent’s assurance of the terms of a policy may have been a more acceptable (but not advisable) option in the past (when policies were often similar and generally favorable to policyholders), you can no longer solely rely upon your agent’s description of the policy.  No matter how well-meaning or knowledgeable your agent may seem, ultimately, you are going to be on the hook if your policy doesn’t say what you thought it said, so it is crucial that you carefully review your disability policy to ensure you are receiving sufficient coverage.

Our next post will discuss the importance of the application process and policy review period.

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How Long Does It Take to Get Benefits? – Part 1

You’ve made the difficult decision to give up practicing and file a claim.  You’re not working and you need to collect the disability benefits you’ve likely paid years of high premiums for.  So how long will you have to wait until your first benefit check arrives?

Unfortunately, the answer is not clear cut—it depends on the terms of your policy, your insurance company, the assigned benefits analyst, and the complexity of your claim, among other things.

Filing a Claim

Your policy should outline the requirements for filing a claim.  Typically, you must give notice of your claim to your insurer within a certain time frame.  If you miss this important deadline, the insurance company will typically claim that you have prejudiced its ability to investigate your claim, and use this as an excuse to delay making a decision on your claim.  Significantly, if you don’t provide timely notice, it can also foreclose your ability to collect benefits (depending on the circumstances, and the reason for the delay).

Once you file your claim with your insurer, they will then send claim forms to be completed by you and your physician.  Your policy should include a deadline for when your insurer must provide you with these forms (e.g. 15 days).  If they don’t provide you with forms within this time frame, most policies allow you to submit a written statement documenting your proof of loss, in lieu of the forms.   Again, there is a deadline to return these forms and failing to do so gives your insurer an excuse to prolong the decision-making process.

Elimination and Accumulation Periods

Your policy will also contain details about your elimination period.  This is the period of time that must pass between your disability date and eligibility for payment on a claim.  Generally, you must be disabled (as defined in your policy) and not working in your occupation during this time period.

Depending on the terms of your policy, this period does not necessarily have to be consecutive, but it does need to occur within the accumulation period also set out in your policy (for example, your policy might require a 90 day elimination period that must be met within a 7 month accumulation period).  You will not be eligible for payment until the elimination period has been fulfilled.  Typically, insurers won’t provide you with a claim decision until after this date has passed.

It is important to be aware of your elimination period, so that you can plan accordingly (and are not expecting a benefit payment to arrive right way when you are budgeting to meet living expenses, or debts like student loans).   Also, it’s important to keep in mind that receiving a benefit payment immediately following the elimination period is the ideal scenario.  In many claims, it takes much longer for a benefit to be issued.  In our next post, we will address some of the most common reasons benefit payments are delayed.

Do I Have to Keep Paying Premiums Even Though I’m Disabled?

If you are thinking about filing a disability claim, you are likely wondering whether you will be able to meet your monthly expenses if you’re no longer able to work.  You may have made a list of your necessary expenses, and likely included your disability insurance premium payments on that list, as your agent likely told you that your policy would lapse and you would lose your coverage if you missed a premium payment.  At this point, you probably started to wonder whether you still have to keep paying the premium after you file the claim, and if so, for how long?

The answer depends on the specific terms of your policy.  The paragraph that you’ll want to look for when you’re reviewing your policy is typically titled “waiver of premium,” but some policies address waiver of premiums as part of a larger section of the policy that discusses premiums more generally.

How Do Waiver of Premium Provisions Work?

Generally speaking, waiver of premium provisions state that your insurance company cannot charge premiums during periods of time when you are disabled.  A waiver of premium provision typically will also require your insurance company to reimburse you for premiums you have previously paid during your period of disability (i.e. the premiums that you paid while the insurance company was investigating your claim).

Waiver of premium provisions are included in most disability insurance policies.  If you are considering purchasing a policy that does not include a waiver of premium provision, you may have the option to purchase a waiver of premium rider.

Here is an example of a waiver of premium provision from an actual disability insurance policy.

Under this policy, the waiver of premium provision requires you to pay premiums either for 90 consecutive days after you become disabled, or until the end of the elimination period (the elimination period is the number of days you must be disabled before you are entitled to benefits, and is usually noted on the first few pages of a policy).

So, for example, under this policy, once you have been disabled for 90 consecutive days, you no longer would have to pay premiums (at least until you recover from your disability, or your insurer terminates your benefits).  You also would receive a refund of any premiums that you paid for any period prior to your date of disability.

Notably, the waiver of premium provision above also requires you to be receiving benefits for the waiver to apply.  This is significant because, depending on the terms of your policy, in some cases you could be disabled but not receiving benefits.  For instance, your policy might have a foreign residency limitation that prevents you from receiving benefits if you are living in another country, even if you remain disabled. In such a case, you might have to resume paying premiums until you returned to the United States in order to keep your coverage in force.

The Takeaway

Timely and proper payment of premiums is critical, as a failure to pay premiums can result in you losing your disability coverage completely.  It is important to read your policy carefully so that you have a clear understanding of when you are required to pay premiums, and when you are entitled to a refund of past premiums.

Most insurance companies will provide you with written confirmation that premiums have been waived, and it is best to keep paying your premiums until you receive this written confirmation, even if you think that you no longer have an obligation to pay premiums under the terms of your policy.  If you have questions about whether your insurance company should have waived and/or refunded premiums under the terms of your policy, an experienced disability insurance attorney can review your policy and explain your rights and obligations under your particular policy.

Can You Move Out of the Country and Still Receive Disability Benefits?

The answer depends on what your disability policy says. Many people don’t realize that their policy may limit their ability to receive disability benefits if they move out of the country. If you’ve ever wondered why claims forms ask for your updated address, one of the reasons might be that your policy contains a foreign residency limitation, and your disability insurance company is trying to figure out if they can suspend your benefits.

Foreign residency limitations allow disability insurance companies to stop paying benefits under your policy if you move out of the country. These limitations may be especially relevant if you have dual citizenship, you want to visit family living abroad, or you plan to obtain medical care in another country. A foreign residency limitation may also affect you if your policy allows you to work in another occupation and you have a job opportunity in another country that you want to pursue. For instance, if you are a dentist and can receive disability benefits while working in another occupation, your insurance company may suspend your benefits if the opportunity you pursue is in another country.

Foreign residency limitations benefit disability insurance companies in several ways. By requiring you to remain mostly in the country while receiving benefits, these limitations simplify the payment process and reduce the possibility that insurers will need to communicate with doctors in other countries to manage your claim. They also make it easier for insurance companies to schedule field interviews and conduct surveillance of you to find out if you have done something that could be interpreted as inconsistent with your claim.

While these limitations are not included in every disability insurance policy, it is important to check if your policy—or a policy you are considering purchasing—contains a foreign residency limitation, because it could limit your ability to collect benefits later on.

Foreign residency limitations vary by policy. Here is an example of one foreign residency limitation from a Guardian policy:

This limitation highlights several details you should look for if your disability policy contains a foreign residency limitation, including the length of time you can spend in another country before your insurance company will suspend your benefits, whether you can resume receiving benefits if you return to the country, and when you will have to resume paying premiums if your insurance company suspends your benefits. Another important consideration is the effect a foreign residency limitation will have on your policy’s waiver of premium provision. Under the policy above, premiums will continue to be waived for six months after benefits are suspended. However, your policy may have a different requirement regarding payment of premiums, so it’s important to read your policy carefully.

Here is an example of another foreign residency limitation from a different Guardian policy:

This limitation contains much less detail than the first limitation. For instance, it does not clarify how suspension of benefits will affect waiver of premium. If your disability policy contains a foreign residency limitation that does not discuss waiver of premium, you should look to your policy’s waiver of premium provision to find out when premiums will become due after benefits are suspended. The policy above also defines foreign residency differently than the first policy. At first glance, it may seem that you can continue to receive disability benefits any time you leave the country for twelve months or less. What the policy actually says, though, is that the insurance company will only pay benefits for twelve months that you are out of the country at any time you are covered by the policy. So, if you have received benefits for twelve months while living in another country—even if those months were spread out over several years—your insurance company will not pay benefits in the future unless you are in the United States or Canada.

As you can see, foreign residency limitations vary among disability policies. If you are thinking about leaving the country, it is important to read your policy carefully first so that you understand how leaving the country may affect your ability to recover benefits.

I used to practice __________ but now I’m _____________?

You spent years in school and invested countless hours to establish and maintain your practice.  You even protected this investment by purchasing a disability policy.  Yet, if you do become disabled and make a claim, your insurer might still make the argument that you are only trying to retire and get paid for it.  Unfortunately, disability insurance claims by doctors and other healthcare professionals are especially targeted for denial or termination.

When you are disabled and are no longer able to practice in your profession, it may seem logical to simply refer to yourself as “retired,” especially if you are not working in another capacity.  While it’s certainly understandable that you may not want to explain to everyone who asks why you’ve hung up your lab coat, you need to keep in mind that innocently referring to yourself as retired will likely prompt your insurer to subject your claim to higher scrutiny.  Insurance companies often attempt to take statements out of context in order to deny or terminate benefits by alleging that a legitimately disabled claimant is:

  • Malingering
  • Making a lifestyle choice.
  • Unmotivated by or unsatisfied with work.
  • Embracing the sick role.

Remember, in the insurance company’s mind, there is a big difference between “disabled” and “retired.” Below are some common situations where you should avoid referring to yourself as retired:

  • When asked for your profession on claim forms.
  • When talking to your doctors or filling out medical paperwork.
  • On your taxes, other financial forms, and applications.
  • Around the office.
  • At social functions or gatherings.
  • On social media.

Insurers can—and often do—employ private investigators to follow claimants on social media; interview staff, family, or acquaintances; and track down “paper trail” documents (such as professional license renewal forms, loan applications, etc.) to see if you have made any statements that could be construed as inconsistent with your disability claim.  Insurers also routinely request medical records and may even contact your doctor(s) directly regarding your disability.  So, for example, saying something off-hand or even jokingly, such as “I’m retired—I can stay out as late as I want now!” to your doctor, or at a social event like a block party, could lead to your insurer trying to deny your claim if they later spoke to your doctor or your neighbor.

While the focus of your claim should be on your condition and how it prevents you from working, insurance companies can latch on to innocent statements like this in an effort to deny legitimate claims. Eschewing the word “retirement” is a good and easy first step to help avoid unwanted and unwarranted scrutiny from insurers.

Comitz | Beethe Attorney Ed Comitz Posts CE Course on Dentaltown

Ed Comitz’s Continuing Education course “Disability Insurance Roulette: Why is it So Hard to Collect on My Policy” is now available through Dentaltown.  This CE is an electronically delivered, self-instructional program and is designated for 2 hours of CE credit.  In this course, Ed discusses why it is so difficult for dentists to collect disability benefits and how to avoid the most common mistakes made by dentists when filing disability claims.  Ed also covers the key provisions to look for in disability insurance policies and provides an overview of the disability claims process.  Finally, the course discusses how disability insurance claims are investigated and administered, and identifies common strategies used by insurance companies to deny claims.

Information on how to register can be found here

For more information regarding what to look for in a policy, see this podcast interview where Ed Comitz discusses the importance of disability insurance with Dentaltown’s Howard Farran.

Understanding Your Policy: Examination Provisions

Disability insurance companies are constantly searching for new ways to expand the power and control they have over their policyholders through the use of restrictive policy provisions.  In previous posts we’ve discussed how disability insurers are expanding their control over their policyholders’ medical treatment by implementing more stringent care provisions.  However, care provisions are not the only avenue for disability insurers to exert a greater degree of influence in the claims process.  Over the years, insurers have also expanded the scope of their authority under examination provisions.

The most basic examination provisions simply notify the policyholder that he or she may be examined by the insurer’s doctor or interviewed by a representative of the insurer, like this policy from Northwestern Mutual:

  • Medical Examination. The Company may have the Insured examined by a health care practitioner.
  • Personal Interview. The Company may conduct a personal interview of the Insured.
  • Financial Examination. The Company may have the financial records of the Insured or the Owner examined.

Taken alone, this does not seem to onerous.  However, you need to watch out for additional requirements buried at the end of the provision:

Any examination or interview will be performed:

  • At the Company’s expense;
  • By a health care practitioner, interviewer or financial examiner of the Company’s choice; and
  • As often as is reasonably necessary in connection with a claim.

The final sentence of this provision leaves the open the possibility of multiple interviews throughout the claim, and may be overlooked by a claimant who does not carefully review his or her policy.

Other provisions, like this medical examination provision from a Standard Insurance Company individual disability insurance policy, expressly condition the payment of benefits on your cooperation with the exam:

MEDICAL EXAM – We can have Physicians or vocational specialists examine You, at Our expense, as often as reasonably necessary while You claim to be Disabled.  Any such examination will be conducted by one or more Physicians or vocational specialists We choose.  We may defer or suspend payment of benefits if you fail to attend an examination or fail to cooperate with the person conducting the examination.  Benefits may be resumed, provided that the required examination occurs within a reasonable time and benefits are otherwise payable.

In newer policies the language used by the disability insurance companies has become ever more burdensome.  For instance, some modern provisions for examinations and interviews create far more specific duties for the policyholder and condition the payment of benefits on the claimant’s satisfaction of these duties.  Take this Guardian policy, for example, which outlines the policyholder’s duties and obligations to comply with examinations and interviews in very specific language:

We have the right to have You examined at Our expense and as often as We may reasonably require to determine Your eligibility for benefits under the Policy as part of Proof of Loss. We reserve the right to select the examiner. The examiner will be a specialist appropriate to the assessment of Your claim.

The examinations may include but are not limited to medical examinations, functional capacity examinations, psychiatric examinations, vocational evaluations, rehabilitation evaluations, and occupational analyses. Such examinations may include any related tests that are reasonably necessary to the performance of the examination. We will pay for the examination. We may deny or suspend benefits under the Policy if You fail to attend an examination or fail to cooperate with the examiner.

You must meet with Our representative for a personal interview or review of records at such time and place, and as frequently as We reasonably require. Upon Our request, You must provide appropriate documentation.

Examination provisions containing language this specific and this restrictive significantly limit your rights.  The most significant change in the evolution of the examination provision is the number of obligations upon which your benefits are conditioned.  This policy language allows disability insurers to use your benefits as leverage to compel your compliance with medical exams, interviews, and a litany of other examinations.

Review your disability insurance policy, and particularly your examination provisions in the “Claims” section, to determine what your rights, duties, and obligations are under your policy.  Unfortunately, if your policy requires to participate in examinations, a refusal will likely lead to a denial of benefits.  However, you do not have to attend alone.  No matter how restrictive the language in your disability insurance policy, you always have the right to have an attorney present for any examination or interview.  If you have any questions about your duties or obligations under your policy, contact an experienced disability insurance attorney.

Understanding Your Policy: Maximum Benefit Period

Your maximum benefit period is one of the most important provisions in your disability insurance policy. Its terms control the period of time during which you are eligible to receive benefits under your policy.

Oftentimes the maximum benefit period is more complicated than you may expect. For instance, most newer disability policies contain a benefit schedule that details the length of your benefit period more precisely, based upon your age at the time the claim is filed.  This policy from MetLife contains a maximum benefit period schedule similar to those found in many disability insurance policies:


Table A.         Maximum Benefit Period Varies By Age When Disability Begins

Age When Disability Begins               Maximum Benefit Period

Before Age 61                                               To Age 65

At Age 61, before Age 62                              48 Months

At Age 62, before Age 63                              42 Months

At Age 63, before Age 64                              36 Months

At Age 64, before Age 65                              30 Months

At Age 65, before Age 75                              24 Months

At or after Age 75                                           12 Months

As you can see, under this sort of provision, the maximum benefit period is reduced based upon how old you are when your disability begins.

It is important be aware that all of the relevant information for determining your maximum benefits period is not always located in the same part of your policy.  For example, your policy summary may contain an asterisk and then, in fine print at the bottom of the schedule state something like “*The Maximum Benefit Period may change due to your age at total disability.  Please see Policy Schedule II.” Then, if you notice the fine print and turn to Schedule II, you see something similar to the Metlife schedule, above, that limits the benefit period based upon your age at the onset of disability.

Other policies require a bit more calculation.  For example, policies like this one from Mutual of Omaha take your Social Security Normal Retirement Age into account:

Age at Disability Maximum Benefit Period
61 or less to Age 65 or to Your Social Security Normal Retirement Age, or 3 years and 6 months, whichever is longer
62 to Your Social Security Normal Retirement Age or 3 years and 6 months, whichever is longer
63 to Your Social Security Normal Retirement Age or 3 years, whichever is longer
64 to your Social Security Normal Retirement Age or 2 years and 6 months, whichever is longer
65 2 years
66 1 year and 9 months
67 1 year and 6 months
68 1 year and 3 months
69 or older 1 year

If your policy contains a provision like this, you can use this calculator to determine your Normal Retirement Age, to determine exactly how long you are entitled to benefits.

Finally, it is important to note that many policies have specific, limited benefit periods for certain conditions such as mental illness and substance abuse (and typically restrict coverage for these sorts of conditions to a short time frame—usually 1 or 2 years).

As you can see, the maximum benefit provision can take many different forms in a disability insurance policy. It is critical that you read your policy carefully and have a firm grasp on how your maximum benefit period provision affects your eligibility for benefits. If you have any questions about your policy, contact an experienced disability insurance attorney.

Policy Riders: A Guide to the Bells and Whistles of Individual Disability Insurance – Part 4

Provisions Appearing As Policy Terms or As Riders (2 of 2)

In this series of posts we are discussing policy riders, the add-ons to your basic disability insurance policy that provide additional terms or benefits in exchange for higher premiums. In part one, we walked through the basics of policy riders and evaluated the commonly-purchased COLA rider. In part two, we analyzed two benefit-based riders that enable you to increase your monthly benefits without the hassle of applying for additional coverage.

In the part three, we looked at a pair of provisions that may appear as policy terms or as riders, depending on the insurer.  Some of these provisions can have a significant effect on your rights and benefits in the event of a disability, and identifying where and how they may fit into your policy is critical to ensuring you are fully protected.  In this fourth post, we’ll look at two more provisions that sometimes appear as policy terms and sometimes appear as riders, depending on the insurer.

Own Occupation

On this blog we have spent a significant amount of time writing the importance of purchasing an individual disability insurance policy to that defines “Total Disability” in terms of your own occupation, rather than any occupation.  This is especially true for doctors, dentists, and other highly specialized professionals who have invested years of time and hundreds of thousands of dollars in their careers.

To determine if you have an own occupation policy, look under the “Definitions” section of your policy for the definition of “Total Disability”:

Total Disability or Totally Disabled means that, solely due to Injury or Sickness, You are not able to perform the material and substantial duties of Your Occupation.

Your Occupation means the regular occupation in which are engaged in at the time you become disabled.

This is a typical own occupation definition of Total Disability.  If your policy does not define total disability in terms of Your Occupation, Your Regular Occupation, Your Current Occupation, or similar language, it is unlikely that you have an own occupation policy.  If that is the case, you may nonetheless be able to purchase an own occupation rider.  An own occupation rider will likely come with a significant premium increase, but for most medical professionals the high cost is justified by the additional income security the provision provides.

Lifetime Benefits

Most modern-day disability insurance policies pay benefits until the policyholder reaches age 65, though in some unique cases a standard policy may pay lifetime benefits.  More often, however, a lifetime benefits provision must be purchased as a policy rider.  The provision usually includes language stipulating that the disabling condition must occur before a certain age (typically between 45 and 55) in order for the policyholder to be eligible for lifetime benefits at 100% of their monthly benefit.  If the condition occurs after the cutoff age, the policyholder will only be paid a percentage of their monthly benefits for the remainder of their lifetime.  For example, the provision may structured as follows:

Lifetime Benefit Percentage is determined based upon the following table:

If Your continuous                                                                 The Lifetime Benefit

Total Disability started:                                                          Percentage is:

Prior to Age 46                                                                              100%

At or after Age 50, but before Age 51                                               75%

At or after Age 55, but before Age 56                                               50%

At or after Age 60, but before Age 61                                               25%

At or after Age 64, but before Age 65                                               5%

At or after Age 65                                                                           0%

A lifetime benefit extension rider can be enormously advantageous if you become disabled prior to the cutoff age.  However, as you can see from the table, it can also have rapidly diminishing returns if you become disabled later in life, depending on your policy’s terms.

In the last post of this series on disability insurance policy riders, we’ll be taking a look at some of the more recent policy rider products disability insurance companies are offering to the next generation of professionals, such as the student loan rider.

 

Policy Riders: A Guide to the Bells and Whistles of Individual Disability Insurance – Part 2

Benefit Increase Riders

In the first post of this series, we introduced you to disability policy riders and discussed a common rider designed to help protect your benefits from a fluctuating economy.  Policy riders can be useful for protecting your growing income as well, and we continue this with an evaluation of two riders intended to ensure that your monthly benefits remain in alignment with your current income and lifestyle.

The vast majority of doctors and dentists will experience significant increases in income as their careers develop.  If you are a dentist who purchased a disability policy right after graduating from dental school, it is likely that after ten or twenty years there will be a significant difference between your current monthly income and your monthly benefits under your policy.

If debilitating carpal tunnel syndrome forces you to stop practicing dentistry, the basic terms of your policy will not cover the gap between your monthly benefits and your current income.  The automatic benefit increase rider and the future increase option rider are designed to fill that gap in different ways.  However, both are intended to ensure that in the event of a disability, your benefits will be sufficient to cover the monthly expenses associated with your current lifestyle.

Automatic Benefit Increase Rider

The automatic benefit increase rider adjusts your monthly benefit on an annual basis to account for anticipated increases in income after you purchase your policy.  The annual increases are typically for a term of five years, after which you will generally be required to provide evidence of increased income in order to renew the rider.  If you renew the rider, it often includes a corresponding premium increase as well.  A typical automatic benefit increase schedule looks like this:

Increase Date Monthly Benefit Increase Annual Premium Increase
December 12, 2003    $500.00   $74.16
December 12, 2004    $500.00   $75.82
December 12, 2005    $500.00   $77.52
December 12, 2006    $500.00   $79.18
December 12, 2007    $500.00   $80.88
Total Increase $2,500.00  $387.56

An automatic benefit increase rider can help ensure that your monthly benefits adjust to compensate for increases in income throughout your career.  If you are purchasing a disability insurance policy and you are concerned with maintaining your lifestyle in the event of a disability, you may consider adding an automatic benefit increase rider to your policy.

Future Increase Option Rider

This policy rider guarantees you the right to purchase additional coverage at predetermined dates in the future without going back through the long and tedious process of reapplying for a policy.  Additional coverage purchases are typically limited to half the original benefit amount, and most insurers will not let you purchase this rider after age 45.  The increase in your premiums will often be a function of the amount of additional coverage purchased and your age at the time of the purchase.  This future income option rider was taken from a standard Unum policy:

You may apply for up to one Unit of Increase as of any Option Date. You may apply for part of a Unit of Increase as of any Option Date.

If all or part of a Unit of Increase is not used as of an Option Date, You may carry it over and apply for it on the next Option Date. But You cannot carry it over beyond that Option Date.

On the first Option Date, You may also apply for up to one additional Unit of Increase if You are not disabled. But You must also exercise all of Your current Unit of Increase.  This additional Unit of Increase cannot be carried over.

In no event may You exercise more than two Units of Increase as of any Option Date.  To use all or part of a carried-over Unit of Increase You must also exercise all of Your current Unit of Increase. The total number of Units of Increase exercised can never exceed the maximum number of Units of Increase shown on the policy schedule.

If You qualify, We will increase Your Policy Benefit by the amount for which You apply.

Like the automatic benefit increase rider, this option helps ensure that your monthly benefits are proportionate with your current income.  As such, if you elect to purchase additional coverage you may be required to show that your current level of income warrants additional coverage.

The future increase option is one of the most common and most popular policy riders, and it is cheaper than the automatic benefit increase rider because all you’re paying for is the right to purchase additional coverage.  Keep in mind, however, that the value of that right is the guarantee of your ability to increase your coverage regardless of subsequent changes in your disability risk factors.

Before you purchase an individual disability insurance policy, take the time to evaluate your financial goals and look carefully at the benefits provided by the basic terms of the policy you are considering.  If the policy basic policy benefits do not cover your needs, you may consider adding one of these riders to ensure your investment in your career is fully protected.  In our next post in this series, we will discuss provisions that may appear either in the basic terms of your policy or as a policy rider and how to identify them.

The Devil Is In the Details: Long Term Disability Policies and Benefit Offsets

In a previous post, we discussed a feature of long-term disability insurance policies that is easily overlooked and frequently leaves policyholders feeling cheated and deceived by their insurer:  the benefit offset provision.  When a person signs up for a disability insurance policy, he or she expects to pay a certain premium in exchange for the assurance that the insurance company will provide the agreed-upon monthly benefit listed in the policy, should they ever become disabled.  What many people do not realize is that some disability insurance policies contain language that permits the insurer to reduce the amount of monthly benefits it is required to pay if the policyholder receives other benefits from another source.

Worker’s compensation, supplementary disability insurance policies, state disability benefits, and social security are some of the most common “other sources” from which policyholders may unexpectedly find their disability insurance benefits subject to an offset.  The frequency of offset provisions varies by policy type.  They are more likely to appear in group policies and employer-sponsored ERISA policies, and are rarely found in individual disability insurance policies.

Benefit offset provisions can have significant and often unforeseen financial repercussions, as illustrated by the recent account of a couple from Fremont, Nebraska.  As reported by WOWT Channel 6 News, Mike Rydel and his wife Carla were receiving monthly benefits under Mr. Rydel’s disability insurance policy with Cigna.  Mr. Rydel had suffered a stroke in the fall of 2015 that had left him incapacitated and unable to work.  The Rydels’ financial situation was made even more dire by Mr. Rydel’s need for 24-hour care, which prevented Mrs. Rydel from working as well.

In an effort to supplement his family’s income, Mr. Rydel applied for Social Security disability benefits.  When his claim was approved, the Rydels expected a much needed boost to their monthly income.  Unfortunately, due to an offset provision in Mr. Rydel’s policy, his monthly benefits under the Cigna policy were reduced as a result of the approved Social Security claim, and his family did not realize any increase in income.

The Rydels were understandably shocked when they were informed by Cigna that Mr. Rydel’s monthly disability insurance benefits would be reduced by the amount he was now receiving from Social Security, and that Cigna would be pocketing the difference.  Perversely, the only party that benefited from Mr. Rydel’s SSDI benefits was Cigna, which was off the hook for a portion of Mr. Rydel’s monthly benefits.  In response to an inquiry from WOWT, Cigna simply asserted that “coordination” of private insurance benefits and government benefits was a long-standing practice – an assurance that likely provided no solace to the Rydels.

The Rydels’ story highlights the importance of carefully reviewing every aspect of your disability insurance policy before signing.  Benefit offsets, policy riders, occupational definitions, and appropriate care standards in your policy can significantly impact your ability to collect full benefits if you become disabled.  You should review your policy carefully to determine if it contains any offset provisions that may affect your benefits.  If it does, you will need to take them into account when estimating your monthly benefits.

References:

http://www.wowt.com/content/news/Stroke-Victim-Suffers-Disability-Insurance-Set-Back-385758411.html

Thinking About a Policy Buyout? How Lump Sum Settlements Work: Part 2

In this two-part series we are addressing the two most common scenarios in which insurance companies pursue lump sum buyouts.  In Part 1, we talked about buyouts for individuals who are totally and permanently disabled and have been on claim for several years.  In Part 2, we will address the other scenario in which buyouts occur: after a lawsuit has been filed.

In the context of an individual disability insurance policy, a lawsuit is generally filed in one of two common scenarios: (1) a person on claim with a legitimate disability has their benefits terminated; or, (2) a person with a legitimate disability has their claim denied.  A lawsuit is typically considered to be the last line of defense in the claims process.  By the time a lawsuit has been filed, the claimant’s attorney has likely exhausted every available means to resolve the claim without legal action.  Litigation is costly, time-consuming, and can drag on for years.

If an insurance company offers a lump sum buyout during litigation, it will typically be at one of three stages in the case: (1) after the Complaint and Answer are filed; (2) after all stages of pretrial litigation and discovery are complete; or (3) after the claimant/plaintiff wins at trial.

The first stage of any lawsuit is the filing of the Complaint.  This is a document the plaintiff files with the court outlining all of the claims and allegations against the defendant.  After receiving a copy of the Complaint, the defendant then has a specified period of time in which to file an Answer responding to the plaintiff’s allegations.

Prior to the filing of a lawsuit, a contested claim has likely been reviewed only by the insurance company’s in-house attorneys.  However, once litigation begins, the insurance company will retain a law firm experienced in insurance litigation to handle the case.  After the filing of the Complaint, the insurance company’s outside counsel will have the opportunity to evaluate the strength of the case and the claim.  Viewing the case through the prism of their experience, the insurer’s litigation team may recommend offering a buyout to avoid the risk, costs, and time associated with the lawsuit.

The second point of a lawsuit at which a buyout may occur is after all stages of pretrial litigation are complete.  Once the parties have had the opportunity to conduct discovery and litigate any pretrial motions, they will have a full picture of the case and their prospects at trial.  Through discovery both sides will be able to obtain all documents and interview all witnesses the other side intends to use at trial.  Through the filing of pretrial motions the parties can attempt to prevent or limit the use of certain evidence or witnesses at trial.

At this juncture, the insurance company may seek to avoid the risks of trial and settle the claim before the first juror is ever impaneled.  The insurance company’s incentive to resolve the case at this point – even after both sides have invested substantial resources in the litigation – is the financial exposure and bad publicity it faces with a loss at trial.  Additionally, a bad result at trial for the insurance company could create undesirable legal precedent for future cases.

If a jury (or a judge, depending on the case) determines that the insurance company has unlawfully denied or terminated a legitimate disability claim, the insurer will not only be required to pay the benefits the claimant/plaintiff is entitled to, but may also be liable for damages and other costs.  The insurer may be required to pay back benefits, plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees and costs, consequential damages, and punitive damages.

In the context of a disability insurance lawsuit, consequential damages come in the form of any financial harm to the claimant/plaintiff resulting from the insurer’s denial or termination of benefits.  For example, if the insurer’s termination of benefits led to the claimant/plaintiff losing their house in foreclosure, the insurer could be liable for consequential damages.  Punitive damages are designed to deter the insurer from denying legitimate claims in the future, and can be multiplied several times over if the insurer is found to have acted in bad faith.  Additionally, some states allow acceleration of benefits – in which the courts can order the insurer to immediately pay future benefits that would owed to the claimant/plaintiff over the full life of the policy.

The final stage at which a lump sum buyout may be offered is after a victory at trial by the claimant/plaintiff.  You may be wondering why anybody would entertain a settlement offer right after a being awarded back benefits, damages, and costs at trial – why accept anything less?  The answer is simple: appeals.  The insurance company can tie up a trial court victory in the court of appeals for years, which they can use as leverage to offer a settlement smaller than the trial award.

Though these three stages of litigation are the most common points at which a buyout may occur, buyouts themselves are uncommon during litigation.  Depending on the situation, the specter of a long, drawn out legal battle can either provide the insurance company with the incentive to settle the lawsuit early with a buyout or harden its resolve to fight the claim to the bitter end.  You cannot count on simply filing a lawsuit and expecting the insurance company to be eager to settle.  Some insurance companies want to settle early and avoid the financial risks and bad publicity of a defeat at trial, while others take a hard line and use their nearly limitless resources to fight a war of attrition.  Ultimately, whether or not an insurer offers a lump sum buyout in the midst of litigation depends largely on the individual facts of the case, the risks at trial, and the parties and attorneys involved.