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By Cheryl Winokur Munk
August 5, 2020
Kiersten Essenpreis for Money

With unemployment so high, more people need to pay attention to their life and disability insurance coverage, as employer-provided options become less accessible or unavailable. Among other issues, employees who lose their job may face decisions about how they might continue paying for protection.

Many workers, especially younger ones, depend on the group life and disability insurance benefits they receive through their job. They may be receiving these coverages for free, or at a nominal, often discounted cost. However, once a person is furloughed or let go, some or all of this coverage may no longer be available, or it may come with a high price tag.

Unlike with health insurance coverage, where private companies who employ more than 20 people must provide an option for COBRA, the rules about continuing life and disability coverage are less clear-cut. The rules depend on company policy and the terms of the group insurance plan as well as applicable state law.

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Given these realities, here are some answers to questions people experiencing job disruption or uncertainty may have about life and disability coverage.

What happens to my policy if I get furloughed or let go?

Some disability and life insurance plan documents allow an employer to continue coverage during an unpaid period of work for specific reasons such as a furlough, says John Dooney, HR Knowledge Advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management.

Even in cases where plan documents don’t allow for this, many employers will work with their disability or insurance providers so that coverage can be extended during an employee’s furlough, he says.

Regarding employees who have been laid off, many group plans allow terminated employees to convert disability or life insurance plans to an individual plan. Employees who choose this option pay the full premium amount, often directly to the insurer, Dooney says.

It’s important, then, to read the company’s plan documents or ask the human resources department what options may be available, says Nina Mitchell, senior wealth advisor and principal at The Colony Group, a Boston-based registered investment advisor.

Questions to ask include: What benefits will you cover if I’m furloughed? Would that be different if I am let go? If there’s an option to maintain my existing benefits, is there a cost or additional cost? Is there an option to increase my benefits, and at what cost?

If my company lets me convert my policy, should I? Or am I better off buying a policy on my own?

When it comes to disability coverage, deciding the fate of your company coverage should be simple. Convert the policy. You can’t buy disability insurance unless you are currently working 30 hours or more a week. So if you’re one of the lucky ones whose company allows you to convert a disability policy, do it, since you won’t be able to purchase a policy once you’re unemployed.

With life insurance coverage, the decision could be less straightforward

The first step is to look at your company coverage. Chances are that any company policy is only providing a portion of the protection you’ll need since many employees opt for the “free” coverage option that could be $50,000, $100,000, or one times the employee’s salary, for example.

Determine whether you can convert the employee policy to an individual policy. Then see whether there is an option to purchase additional coverage. Some plans allow this, but depending on the increase requested, an insurer may require proof of good health, according to Dooney, the human resources professional.

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The next step is to shop around in the open market. Policy costs can vary widely, depending on factors such as the duration of policy, gender, age, health, state of residence, and insurer. A young and healthy person may find better and more affordable coverage by comparison shopping with various insurers rather than simply converting a group policy to an individual one, says Erin Ardleigh, president of Dynama Insurance, a Manhattan-based independent insurance brokerage.

Because there are so many options, Ardleigh recommends comparing at least two different term lengths (such as 20- and 30-year term) from at least three different insurance companies. This allows you to compare costs among different companies and coverage levels, she said.

Many people worry about cost, but if you were offered severance, you might consider using a portion of it to buy an individual life insurance policy, Mitchell says.

Also, you may find life insurance to be more affordable than you think. That’s especially the case if you choose to buy term insurance. It’s recommended by many experts over whole-life insurance, in part because term policies are usually more cost-effective.

If your budget is tight, don’t worry about the next 30 years; think about the next few and what you need to do to bridge the gap between now and when you will likely be employed and may have other coverage options, Ardleigh says. If budget is not an issue, you would be wise to lock in coverage for the long-term while young and healthy.

If I opt for an individual life policy, how much coverage do I need?

Everyone wants a magic number, but it depends on factors such as the number of children and their age, your spouse’s employment situation and salary, debts, assets, liquidity and how much money you have set aside for retirement, according to Carol Petrov, vice president and senior relationship manager of Kendall Capital, a registered investor advisor in Rockville, Md.

Still, as a general rule of thumb, Ardleigh, the insurance broker, recommends people consider purchasing enough insurance to create an income stream that would replace 50% to 75% of their income, as well as pay off 50% or more of debts and obligations such as the mortgage and college for children.

Be sure to keep up with payments so any policy you have doesn’t lapse. If you are having trouble, call your insurer to see what flexibility, if any, exists, says Mitchell, the investment advisor.

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Advertiser Disclosure

The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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