As a medical resident who is just starting out, you have likely heard about disability insurance, but you may not know a lot about what it is, and why it is important. In this series of posts, we will be discussing a few things that every medical resident should know about disability insurance.
In this post we will look at the likelihood of disability, and discuss how you can begin to protect yourself now and in the future. In subsequent posts we’ll address some of the key provisions to look for in a disability insurance policy, ways to make sure your policy meets current and future expenses, and ways to increase your disability benefits over time, as both your earning potential and financial obligations expand.
Likelihood of Disability
As a resident, you are beginning what will hopefully be a long and successful career as a physician. The possibility of suffering either a short or long-term disability is probably the last thing on your mind, especially if you are still young and healthy. However, the American Medical Association (AMA) reports that 60% of surveyed physicians have a colleague who has sustained a disability accident or injury. A Social Security Administration report shows that it is significantly more likely that a worker born in 1996 will become disabled during his or her career than die, and just over 1 in 4 of today’s twenty-year-olds will become disabled before they retire.
Protection Against Disability
The majority of young doctors under 40 are married, have children, are homeowners, and 75% report that they are their family’s primary breadwinner. Young doctors also face substantial student loan debt, totaling around $166,750, on average. With a resident’s salary averaging just $50,000 a year, it can be tempting to put off adding the additional expense of an insurance premium. However, with most young doctors having less than $50,000 in an emergency fund , it’s never too early to start planning to protect your family and provide for care in the unfortunate event you can no longer practice.
While many residents and doctors choose to take part in disability plans offered by their employers, these plans will often not provide adequate coverage, and any benefits you do receive will likely be taxable. In contrast, an individual plan provides coverage that is yours as you move from your residency and through (potentially) many different employers. Individual plans also typically allow you to adjust your coverage as your income potential grows. However, not all individual policies are created equal and it is important to carefully choose a policy.
In our next post, we’ll examine some key provisions to be aware of when shopping for an individual disability insurance policy.
 Robert Nagler Miller, Residents: Your disability insurance coverage may fall short, AMA Wire, April 4, 2017, https://wire.ama-assn.org/life-career/residents-your-disability-insurance-coverage-may-fall-short
 Johanna Maleh and Tiffany Bosley, Disability and Death Probability Tables for Insured Workers Born in 1996, Social Security Administration, Office of the Chief Actuary, Actuarial Note, No. 2016.6, October 2016.
 You, disabled? What are your chances?, The Council for Disability Awareness, 2015, http://www.disabilitycanhappen.org/chances_disability/
 2015 Report on U.S. Physicians’ Financial Preparedness, Young Physicians Segment, American Medical Association Insurance, https://www.amainsure.com/reports/2015-young-physician-report/index.html?page=5
 Kathy Kristof, $1 million mistake: Becoming a doctor, CBS Money Watch, Sept. 10, 2013, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/1-million-mistake-becoming-a-doctor/
 2015 Report, Supra.
 Miller, Supra.
 2015 Report, Supra
In Part 1 of this post, we started to look at the recent case Leonor v. Provident Life and Accident Company. The key issue in this case was whether the policy language “the important duties” meant “all the important duties.” In Part 2 of this post, we will look at how the court addressed the parties’ arguments and see how the court ultimately resolved the dispute.
Under Michigan law, ambiguous words in a disability policy are construed in favor of the insured. A word or phrase is ambiguous if the word or phrase may “reasonably be understood in different ways.” Because of these rules, in order to win his case, the claimant, Leonor, did not have to come up with an interpretation that was superior to the interpretation offered by the insurer, Provident Life. Instead, Leonor merely had to establish that the policy language was ambiguous and then come up with a reasonable interpretation of the policy language that supported his claim for benefits.
The court began its analysis by recognizing that context is important when interpreting a contract. The court acknowledged that the definition of “residual disability” was obviously intended to be a less severe category of disability, and even acknowledged that the terms “total disability” and “residual disability” had to be mutually exclusive for the rest of the policy to make sense. Nonetheless, the court determined that the phrase “the important duties” was ambiguous.
By way of illustration, consider the following continuum, beginning with no limitations and ending at the inability to perform all of the important duties of an occupation.
No Limitations Unable to Perform Unable to Perform Unable to Perform Some Duties Most Duties All Duties
Essentially, the court determined that the “residual disability” definition was broad enough to encompass individuals who could not perform “some” of the duties of their occupation, but was not broad enough to encompass individuals who could not perform “most” or “all” of the duties of their occupation. Thus, the policy language remained ambiguous because the “total disability” definition could still mean either the inability to perform “most” duties or the inability to perform “all” duties.
Next, the court determined that Leonor’s interpretation of the policy language was reasonable. The court explained that, under the rules of grammar, the definite plural does not necessarily apply to each thing in the group referred to. To support its position, the court noted that Provident Life’s own counsel argued at oral argument that its position was supported by “the rules of grammar” even though Provident Life’s counsel obviously did not mean to suggest that its position was supported by “all the rules of grammar.”
Finally, the court held that a claimant’s income is “far from dispositive” in disability cases. Specifically, the court determined that Leonor should not be penalized for earning more income after his injury than he did before the injury. The court noted that because investing in businesses is inherently risky, it was entirely appropriate for Leonor to insure himself against the loss of the guaranteed, steady income provided by the dental procedures.
In the end, the court determined that Leonor was “totally disabled” under the policies because the phrase “the important duties” was ambiguous and Leonor had offered a reasonable application of the phrase that supported an award of benefits. The court ordered Provident Life to pay Leonor his benefits under the policy, plus 12% interest as a penalty for failing to pay the claim in a timely fashion.
This case demonstrates how the presence or absence of a single word in a policy can dramatically affect your ability to recover benefits. Even language that is not necessarily unfavorable, but merely ambiguous, can delay your recovery of benefits if you have to go to court to resolve a dispute with the insurer. For example, in the Leonor case, Leonor made his initial disability claim in July 2009, but the court did not conclusively establish he was entitled to benefits until June 2015—nearly six years later.
If possible, you should avoid ambiguous and unfavorable language when purchasing a policy. If you already have a policy, an experienced disability insurance attorney can review your policy and identify words or phrases that could impact your ability to recover benefits in a timely fashion.
 790 F.3d 682 (6th Cir. 2015).
Can the presence or absence of a single word in your disability policy determine whether you receive your disability benefits?
In the recent case Leonor v. Provident Life and Accident Company, the key issue was whether the policy language “the important duties” meant “all the important duties.” In Part 1 of this post, we will look at each party’s position in the case and examine why this policy language was so important. In Part 2 of this post, we will look at how the court addressed the parties’ arguments and see how the court ultimately resolved the dispute.
In the Leonor case, the claimant, Leonor, was a dentist who could no longer perform dental procedures due to an injury and subsequent cervical spine surgery. Prior to the injury, Leonor spent approximately two-thirds of his time performing dental procedures, and spent the rest of his time managing his dental practice and other businesses he owned. After the injury, he no longer performed dental procedures; instead, he sought out other investment opportunities and devoted his time to managing his investments. Interestingly, Leonor’s income actually increased after he stopped performing dental procedures because his investments turned out to be very successful.
Leonor’s disability policy provided for benefits if he became “totally disabled,” and defined “totally disabled” as follows:
“Total Disability” means that because of Injury or Sickness:
You are unable to perform the important duties of Your Occupation; and
You are under the regular and personal care of a physician.
Leonor’s policy also provided for benefits if he became “residually disabled,” and defined “residually disabled” as follows:
“Residual Disability,” prior to the Commencement Date, means that due to Injury or Sickness:
(1) You are unable to perform one or more of the important duties of Your Occupation; or
(2) You are unable to perform the important duties of Your Occupation for more than 80% of the time normally required to perform them; and
Your loss of Earning is equal to at least 20% of your prior earnings while You are engaged in Your Occupation or another occupation; and
You are under the regular and personal care of a Physician.
The insurer, Provident Life, argued that Leonor’s managerial duties were “important duties” of his occupation prior to his injury, and therefore Leonor was not “totally disabled” because he could still perform managerial duties in spite of his injury.
Leonor responded that the policy language only required him to be unable to perform “the important duties” of his occupation. He pointed out that Provident Life could have required him to be unable to perform “all the important duties” of his occupation. Since Provident Life did not include the word “all,” Leonor argued that it did not matter whether he could still perform managerial duties because he could no longer perform other “important duties” of his occupation—namely, performing dental procedures.
In response, Provident Life argued that, when read in context, “total disability” plainly meant the inability to perform “all the important duties” because the policy separately defined “residual disability” as being unable to perform “one or more of the important duties.” Thus, according to Provident Life there was already a category under the policy that covered individuals like Leonor who could not perform “some” of the important duties of their occupation. Provident Life also argued that Leonor should not receive total disability benefits because Leonor’s income after the injury was higher than it was prior to the injury.
Stay tuned for Part 2, to find out how the court addressed Principal Life’s arguments and resolved the dispute.
 790 F.3d 682 (6th Cir. 2015).
In our last post, we talked about PDQ and why it matters. In this post we are going to be talking about another important calculation—EIQ.
EIQ stands for “earnable income quotient.” Your EIQ estimates how much income you will earn before you retire.
Why Does EIQ Matter?
Many young doctors and dentists are understandably hesitant to go out and purchase disability insurance right away. Adding another insurance premium to the mix is often not very appealing to a young doctor or dentist facing substantial student loan debt and other expenses.
As time goes on, it is easy to forget about disability insurance. Once income is on the rise, many doctors and dentists raise their standard of living proportionally, without giving much thought to what might happen if that income suddenly disappeared.
Consequently, many doctors and dentists have not set up a safety net (such as disability insurance) to cover their expenses if they become disabled. Calculating your EIQ can give you a sense of how much income you are placing at risk by not having disability coverage. Depending on your salary and years remaining until retirement, the number may surprise you.
Once you know your EIQ, you will have a better sense of the amount of disability coverage you will need to maintain your standard of living and meet your goals for retirement. Remember that should you become disabled, your expenses will not simply go way. If anything, they will likely be higher due to medical bills and other out-of-the-ordinary costs that are necessary to accommodate the disability, so be sure to also factor such expenses into your level of coverage.
How Do I Calculate My EIQ?
The Council for Disability Awareness also has an online EIQ calculator. All you have to do is input some basic information about your annual/hourly/weekly income, expected salary increases, and retirement age and the EIQ calculator will estimate how much you will make before you retire.