Mayo Clinic, April 22, 2014
Prognosis: “Life sentence” of 3-5 years
The Bad News
A neurologist doesn’t spend much time dispensing Band-Aids, but mine certainly believed in ripping one off all at once. As he shared the results of the extensive battery of tests with me and my wife, he quickly detailed the progressively degenerative list of symptoms of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, or the condition that was expected to kill me. I was 56, and not likely to see 60.
The news hit us with the kind of cold shock soon to be experienced by thousands of people undertaking the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge the coming summer. As chilling as the diagnosis was, my thoughts soon turned to what was covered by my group insurance benefits, not the least of which was my life insurance, and what would happen to my family if I died.
Ironically, my job for the last 30 years had been to create marketing materials promoting insurance and reinsurance products, and I thought I knew everything about these products and how they worked. I had signed up for similar benefits every year. But when I was diagnosed with a terminal illness most of those bullet points left me. I’d certainly written a lot about the needs of young families to protect their financial security and their long-term plans for their children through life insurance. I’d also written about the role of life insurance in estate planning for older folks approaching retirement.
I couldn’t think of anything I’d ever written, however, about what it might mean for a mid-lifer such as myself, facing a mid-life-or-death crisis. In our case, our children were pretty much grown and “paid for”. Our youngest was just finishing college. We had a tremendous amount of equity in our home. Did I still even need life insurance?
Yes! All of a sudden, retirement planning – for a retirement that I wasn’t likely to see – became even more of a priority. We had expected another 10 years or so of me working in order to provide a comfortable retirement. Without my earnings, what did this diagnosis mean to the standard of living I wanted for my wife, and even for my children and grandchildren? And, since my life coverage was group insurance, would I even be able to count on a death benefit if/when I had to leave my job?
The good news
It didn’t take long to reacquaint myself with the basics of my coverage, and even to learn about some features I hadn’t considered. I’d always maxed my company group life and supplemental coverage, even as the premiums increased as I got older. It was simple, and “just in (worst) case.” I confirmed that my life policy could continue on a guaranteed-issue basis if I went on long-term disability leave, as long as I continued to pay the premiums. What I didn’t realize was that my plan also featured a Waiver of Premium benefit, triggered by my disability, which would pay those premiums for me. There was also an accelerated death benefit on the policy that would allow me to access up to 75% of the face amount if I were (ahem) to have less than a year to live.
It’s hard to describe (though that’s what I’ve been asked to do here) the sense of relief I had in knowing that there was life after (my) death for my family, at least in terms of financial security. Knowing there would be enough to provide ongoing income made our “worst-case” scenario less terrifying. Being diagnosed with a terminal illness is stressful enough without having to worry about the financial well-being of one’s family.
More good news
As I write this, I have recently turned 60. Thirteen months after being diagnosed with ALS, the Mayo “undiagnosed” me. While I still had some issues, I was too healthy to fit the profile. Whether I was initially misdiagnosed (which the doctors are loathe to admit), or the Chief Underwriter decided I should have more time (the answer I favor), I have continued to work. I’ve also continued to appreciate my insurance benefits, and we’ve taken further steps to secure our future as well.
I don’t regret the experience in the least. It’s given me a new perspective and greater appreciation for a lot of things. Being a part of this industry is just one of those.
John Stewart, pictured second from left, is Director, Senior Writer for RGA Reinsurance Company.
Formerly he was Director, Communications for RGA U.S. Group Reinsurance.