On New Year’s Day 2014, Brittany Maynard was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer; she was only 29 years old. After doctors told her she had six months to live, Maynard was faced with a difficult choice: follow a treatment plan that might ease her pain, but severely diminish the quality of her remaining life, or refuse treatment and allow her family to watch her slowly deteriorate, suffer and die.
Instead, she looked for a third option. “I did not want this nightmare scenario for my family,” Maynard wrote in an op-ed for CNN, “so I started researching death with dignity.”
The “death with dignity” or “right to die” movements have long sought to legalize doctor-assisted suicide in the United States. But up until last year only Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont had death with dignity laws on their books. This meant that in order for her to die on her own terms, Maynard, a California resident, would have to uproot her life and move to Oregon.
“I am heartbroken that I had to leave behind my home, my community and my friends in California,” Maynard told California legislators in a statement recorded weeks before her death, “but I am dying and I refuse to lose my dignity. I refuse to subject myself and my family to purposeless, prolonged pain and suffering at the hands of an incurable disease.”
Surrounded by her family, Maynard passed away via physician assisted suicide in Oregon on November 1st 2014. She has since become a powerful symbol in the right-to-die movement and in October of last year, less than one year after her death, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the End of Life Option Act into law, effectively legalizing the right-to-die in California.
“The people-powered movement for more options at the end of life is truly unstoppable” says Brandi Alexander of Compassion & Choices, a Denver-based right-to-die advocacy group. And with New Mexico legalizing physician-assisted suicide last year, and several other states considering similar legislation, the movement does indeed seem poised for nationwide success.
So what does this have to do with life insurance?
In the face of such a grim and serious issue, it may seem petty to worry about what some might consider the administrative details of dying with dignity, but for the millions currently paying life insurance premiums in this country, it’s no superficial matter. Fearing the prospect of leaving their families with nothing, many policy holders are beginning to wonder exactly how exercising their right to die might affect a life insurance claim.
This is a complicated issue, and every insurance company is different. They each have their own rules regarding life insurance qualifications and requirements, and they will likely take different approaches to the right-to-die issue as it continues to develop. But for the time being at least, there is no need to worry.
Unlike the majority of health and medical insurance policies that refuse to cover the costs associated with self-inflicted harm, both permanent life and term life insurance policies will still pay a benefit to beneficiaries even if the insured has died via suicide. However, life insurance policies do include what is called a “Suicide Clause,” which usually states that no claims will be paid if you commit suicide during the first two years. And while very few, if any, policies include specific language about right-to-die cases, it stands to reason that physician-assisted suicide would also fall under the suicide clause.
As the right-to-die movement continues to push forward, we will see if the life insurance industry changes its policies regarding suicide. But for now it seems that, outside of the two year suicide exclusion, life insurance policy holders won’t have to worry about losing their ability to provide for their families should they choose to end their lives with the assistance of their doctors. But again, every company is different, so you’re encouraged to take a look at your own policy and talk to your insurance provider if you have any questions regarding this sensitive and serious issue.