After all, you can't take it with you

The terminally ill are selling their life insurance to pay for a last big fling, reports Ros Wynne-Jones
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The Independent Online
Life may be a lottery, but for Brenda Ward, who has a malignant brain tumour, it is her approaching death that brought her a windfall. Brenda, a former nurse from Middlesbrough, is one of a rising number of terminally ill people in Britain who are cashing in life-insurance policies in the name of life before death.

Brenda's postcards from Cape Town, Sydney, Hawaii and Houston are among hundreds sent to Life Benefit Resources, which buys the policies from the terminally ill. The grateful messages are a poignant legacy from these clients.

"In the Western world we tend to say to people, 'Hey, I'm really sorry you're dying, you have all my sympathy. But please go and sit in the corner and die quietly'," says Richard Legg, LBR's director. "There is a reluctance to accept that people are people and they all have hopes and dreams. We've all got things we want to do one day. It doesn't matter that the number of days you have might be shorter ... it just heightens your requirement to get it all in."

The stories of Brenda and others like her are featured in a BBC Modern Times documentary on Wednesday.

Tony Wright, for example, who is almost certainly in the last year of his life, is packing in as much as he can. Cashing in his policy has allowed the former airline marketing executive to swap his cramped flat in London's Docklands for a spacious home in his native Queensland, Australia. He has also achieved his lifetime ambitions of buying a custom-built MG and his own racehorse. "Of course I want to see it win, so that's another reason to keep on living," he says.

Tony and his partner, Nick, are used to people assuming he has Aids because he is homosexual and terminally ill, but he is actually dying of leukaemia. "You get about five years with leukaemia from diagnosis until you go," he says. "I've had four of them. It's like a timebomb."

In fact the growing industry, known as "viatical" investment, owes its origins to the Eighties Aids epidemic in the United States. It has since branched into many other forms of terminal illness, particularly cancer, although 50 per cent of its clients in Britain today are people with Aids. The name comes from the Latin "viaticum" which was money or supplies given to emissaries sent to the far-flung corners of the Roman Empire and not expected to return alive.

Investors buy up the life insurance of people certified as terminally ill and pay them a percentage, usually about 75 per cent. When the person dies, the investor benefits from the policy.

The viatical industry may be fulfilling the needs and dreams of the dying, but the "die now, pay later" investment is not to everybody's taste. Postcards, however touching, are not always enough - a viatical company needs to contact its clients regularly to see if they are still alive. LBR employees never meet their clients so they don't get too attached to them, although Mr Legg says they do develop "close relationships" over the phone.

Meanwhile, the percentage of the policy that clients get depends on how long they are likely to live: the bigger the lump sum, the less time you've got to spend it. While Brenda was overjoyed at the pounds 21,425 that took her round the world, her brother Brian, a financial adviser who introduced her to the idea, explains that the "maximum payout means the consultant has painted the blackest picture".

Critics are dismayed at investors making capital out of the dying. In 1995 the BMA ordered doctors not to promote viatical services. Dr Stella Lowry, its assistant secretary, said: "General practitioners are not trained as financial advisers. They are giving tacit approval to the scheme by displaying literature in their surgeries."

Whether viatical salespeople are modern champions of the terminally ill or a cynical new breed of Nineties ambulance-chasers, Brenda Ward is having the time of her life. "I'm happy, really happy," she says, visiting relatives in Australia. "I keep thinking I'm dreaming all this. I keep saying to Steve [her husband]: 'Am I really here?' I feel better now than I have felt for years, probably because I'm more relaxed. I don't feel sad about any of it."

But Steve says quietly: "The whole holiday is about the fact that Brenda's dying. I feel very sad because the Brenda we're seeing now is not my Brenda. My Brenda could walk for miles - she could walk the legs off me. She's happy in her own little way but I'm very sad. I don't know what's round the corner for me and Brenda and I just feel so angry that I can't do more for her. We don't talk about the future much ... we have got to get the good times out of the way first."

For Steve, these good times of white sands and cloudless skies are overshadowed by the very shortness of time that has bought them their place in the sun.

For Nick, Tony Wright's dying days in their Queensland idyll are simply a just return for Tony's suffering.

"It's his money," he says. "It doesn't worry me at all how he spends it.

"I wasn't the one to have to go through the chemotherapy. If you'd have seen it, you'd realise."

Like Brenda, Tony is optimistic. "All my life I've had terrific luck so something could happen. They could find a cure, a miracle cure..."

He says he almost feels guilty for still being alive, as if he's reneged on his side of the deal by lingering on. He is rallying since he left inner-city London in a new lease of life that Mr Legg says is common in his clients. They are often more relaxed, living healthier, happier lives, and at the same time they are more reluctant to let go of life because "the impact of getting the money makes life a better place for them".

"The money gave me something to look forward to, something to live for," says Tony, who describes this period in Australia as a hiatus between death and life. "There's so much you can enjoy with this money you never knew you had. It's a very strange thing taking out insurance policies ... quite funny really. If you die you get nothing from them, so why not enjoy them now?"

'Modern Times': Time of their Lives. BBC2, Wednesday, 9pm