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.
In a previous post, we discussed the importance of how your policy defines the key term “total disability,” and provides several examples of “total disability” definitions. The definition of “total disability” in your policy can be good, bad, or somewhere in-between when it comes to collecting your benefits.
Policies with “true own occupation” provisions are ideal. Here’s an example of a “true own occupation” provision:
Under this type of provision, you are “totally disabled” if you can’t work in your occupation (for example, you can no longer perform dentistry). This means that you can still work in a different field and receive your benefits under this type of policy.
Insurance companies often try to make other policies look like true own occupation policies, and include phrases like “own occupation” or “your occupation,” but then tack on additional qualifiers to create more restrictive policies.
One common example of a restriction you should watch out for is a “no work” provision. Although these provisions can contain the phrase “your occupation” they only pay total disability benefits if you are not working in any occupation. Here’s an example from an actual policy:
As you can see, under this type of provision, you cannot work in another field and still receive benefits. This can be problematic if you do not have sufficient disability coverage to meet all of your monthly expenses, as you’re not able to work to supplement your income.
A “no work” provision is something that is relatively easy to recognize and catch, if you read your policy carefully. Recently, we have come across a definition of “total disability” that is not so easy to spot, but can dramatically impact you ability to collect benefits. Here’s an example, taken from a 2015 MassMutual policy:
At first glance, this looks like a standard “own-occupation” provision—in fact, it is entitled “Own Occupation Rider.” But if you take the time to read it more closely, you’ll notice that the second bullet point requires you to be working in another occupation in order to receive “total disability” benefits.
Obviously, this is not a policy you want. If you have a severely disabling condition, it may prevent you from working in any occupation, placing you in the unfortunate position of being unable to collect your benefits, even though you are clearly disabled and unable to work in any capacity. Additionally, many professionals have limited training or work history outside their profession, so it can be difficult for them to find alternative employment or transition into another field—particularly later in life.
These “work” provisions appear to be a relatively new phenomenon, and are becoming increasingly more common in the newer policies being issued by insurance companies. It is crucial that you watch out for these “work” provisions and make sure to read both the policies definition of “own-occupation” and “total disability.” While many plans contain the phrase “own-occupation”, including this example, they often aren’t true own-occupation policies and you shouldn’t rely on an insurance agent to disclose this information. Oftentimes, your agent may not even realize all of the ramifications of the language and definitions in the policy that they are selling to you.
Lastly, you’ll also note that this particular provision was not included in the standard “definitions” section of the policy, but was instead attached to the policy as a “rider,” making it even harder to spot. It’s important to remember that many definitions and provisions that limit coverage are contained in riders, which typically appear at the end of your policy. Remember, you should read any policy from start to finish before purchasing.
In this series, we’re taking a look at some of the most popular disability insurance companies for doctors. See our profiles of MassMutual and MetLife. Northwestern Mutual is another disability insurer that specifically markets its policies to physicians and dentists.
In 2014, the company insured 476,000 people through 727,000 individual disability policies. Northwestern Mutual prides itself on paying more dividends that its competitors. In order to do that, of course, it must maintain consistently high profit levels.
Company: Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company.
Location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Associated Entities: Northwestern Long Term Care Insurance Co., Northwestern Mutual Investment Services, LLC, Northwestern Mutual Wealth Management Co., The Frank Russell Co.
Assets: $217.1 billion in 2014.
Notable Policy Features: Northwestern Mutual sells policies with an “own occupation” definition of total disability. However, these policies are often only truly “own occupation” for a limited amount of time, after which they become any occupation policies (only providing benefits if you are unable to work in any job) or “no work” own occupation policies (only providing benefits if you are unable to perform your job duties and are not working in another job).
For instance, a Northwestern Mutual policy might include the following definition:
Total Disability. Until the end of the Initial Period [defined elsewhere as 60 months of benefits], the Insured is totally disabled when is unable to perform the principal duties of his occupation. After the Initial Period [i.e., 60 months], the Insured is totally disabled when he is unable to perform the principal duties of his occupation and is not gainfully employed in any occupation.
In order to make sure a Northwestern Mutual disability insurance policy keeps the own occupation definition for as long as you hold the policy, you may need to purchase an additional benefit rider.
Read more about Northwestern Mutual’s interpretation of its own occupation policies.
Claims Management Approach: Some of the claims strategies that Northwestern Mutual is known to use include conducting in-home field interviews on top of third-party surveillance, hiring its own medical consultants to review claimants’ records and opine on whether or not they are disabled, and demanding that claimants (especially those with mental conditions) undergo “independent” medical examinations (IMEs) with providers of Northwestern Mutual’s choosing.
These profiles are based on our opinions and experience. Additional source(s): Northwestern Mutual’s 2013 Annual Report; Northwestern Mutual Fact Sheet 2014; Forbes.com.
Even though disability insurance companies have a duty under Arizona law to give your interests equal consideration to their own, insurers rarely act for the policyholder’s benefit. Claims benefit managers are frequently taught how to approach disability claimants to get a desired result, usually a denial or termination of benefits. From our years of experience with the disability insurance industry, we have learned some of the tactics claims personnel use. The following is a list of strategies to beware of. Though not every disability claim manager engages in these practices, it is always a good idea for claimants to be vigilant in order to protect their rights under their policy.
- Treating claims like a unit of production. Disability insurance companies often don’t care to know how being disabled and filing for benefits affects you personally. Don’t expect that they will understand or be sympathetic to the personal toll the entire process takes on a claimant, especially a doctor or dentist who has spent years in study and practice to achieve professional success. To disability insurers, each claim is a unit of production being channeled towards an end goal.
- Misinterpreting policy provisions. Disability insurance claims managers are not lawyers, and just like most people, often have trouble properly interpreting complicated insurance policies. For example, claims personnel might inform an insured that her claim is an “any occupation” policy when in fact it is an “own occupation” policy.
- Claiming rights that don’t exist under the policy. Claims managers will also frequently indicate that the disability insurance company can make claimants do certain things or provide certain information that is not actually required under the individual policy. For instance, an insurer might tell a claimant he needs to complete a detailed daily activity report, when there is actually no such requirement to do so in his policy. Make sure you know what your policy does and does not actually allow.
- Acting like your friend. Employees of disability insurance companies often try to act like your friend or partner in the process, when they are actually channeling your claim towards denial or termination of benefits. Often, claims managers will call an insured for a friendly chat, all the while peppering the insured with seemingly innocuous questions meant to provide evidence for claim denial. Policyholders should understand the questions being asked, and not get distracted by the congeniality of the caller.
- Sending “field investigators” to talk about your claim. Another common practice in the disability insurance industry is to schedule an in-person interview in the claimant’s home with a “field investigator.” These interviewers will spend hours asking about your symptoms and activities in excruciating detail, taking copious notes and even asking to photograph you. What they may not make clear is that the field investigator has no authority over the disposition of your claim. Rather, he or she is a private investigator hired by your insurance company to gather evidence against your claim and provide a starting point for surveillance.
The best way to make sure that these claims management practices aren’t used to take advantage of you when making a claim for disability benefits is to enlist an attorney who knows the tactics used and how to guard against them. Nevertheless, every insured should understand their insurance company’s approach to claims management and be cautious in their interactions with claims management personnel.