Survivor's lament

Ken Welsby looks at how life insurers handle suicides
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The Independent Online
When a member of your family (or, indeed, a friend) commits suicide it is emotionally devastating. "Why did he do it? Why didn't he come and talk to me? If only he had said something?" is the anguished cry. In many cases, a suicide triggers deep feelings of guilt and inadequacy among other family members. Elizabeth is the widow of a shop owner who died from drowning at 41: "I'm his wife. We had been together for nearly 10 years, married for eight of them. That's 3,000 days and nights together - and I didn't feel what he was feeling. Every day I woke up asking myself: what kind of a woman am I that I couldn't feel how much he was hurting?"

Most suicides are men. In 1994 there were 2,821 male and 798 female suicides in England and Wales. The total has fallen from a peak of about 4,400 a decade ago, but that disguises an alarming trend: the sharp rise among men under 45. Women's suicides have fallen, but men's have been rising steadily since the 1970s - the first time since 1911 that male and female suicide trends have moved in different directions.

Suicide, or apparent suicide, always involves an inquest in England and Wales (the legal procedure is different in Scotland). This can often delay the funeral, by which time money matters may well have started to intrude on grief. As with any death, the first consideration will normally be paying for the funeral and other routine expenses. In the case of a partner's death, the survivor can draw on a joint account, but funds held in a personal account will not be released until probate is granted, and this will not be affected by the fact that the death was suicide. In the case above, Elizabeth was able to cover the initial expenses from her own savings and the joint account - but that did not last. Two of three life insurance policies paid up without delay. The third was more complicated since it had been taken out only a few months earlier. Like most life insurance policies, this carried what is known as a one-year suicide exclusion clause. In strict terms that means that if the holder dies from his or her own hand within 12 months of the policy being taken out, the insurer is not obliged to pay. The idea is to prevent someone with crippling debts trying to safeguard his or her family by taking out substantial life insurance and then committing suicide to trigger a payout.

In Elizabeth's case, the insurer paid up once satisfied the claim was legitimate, which involved a two-month delay.

Just how the one-year exclusion clause is interpreted will vary from insurer to insurer. Co-operative Insurance is probably typical. Les Boland, an assistant general manager, explains: "We would normally apply the exclusion clause, but we would consider each case individually." Guardian Assurance takes a similar view, but like many other insurers it will pay up within the first year if the policy has been taken out to cover a mortgage. "Where the policy is intended to safeguard the interests of a third party, such as a mortgage lender, we would not hesitate to pay," a spokesman says. "The consequences could be disastrous for the family. At a time when they were suffering emotionally, the last thing they would want to worry about was the mortgage." This is echoed by Kevin Pearce, a director of Allied Dunbar, who emphasises that the exclusion clause does not rule out payment; it simply enables the insurer to exercise discretion.

He says: "Only when we have all the facts can we make a decision on a claim, but we would certainly be sympathetic. For example, we have recently paid a claim involving a man who committed suicide following the death of his daughter, even though the policy had been in force less than a year."

David Lamb, director of marketing and development at J Rothschild Assurance, which specialises in higher-value life cover (up to and beyond pounds 1m), views the exclusion as unnecessary in his sector. "The value of our policies is such that we tend to have detailed medical and financial histories from our clients."

All the insurers point out, however, that they would not be sympathetic to a first-year claim where information, for example regarding health or debt, had not been disclosed.

So far as a survivor's pensions are concerned, the nature of the death will not usually affect eligibility. The exception is if a plan includes integral life assurance, which may also include the one- year suicide exclusion clause.

Suicide figures for 1994

Age range Men Women

5-14 5 2

15-24 341 62

25-34 726 136

35-44 556 120

45-54 476 132

55-64 290 111

65-74 229 102

75-84 148 94

85+ 50 39

Source: Office for National Statistics