Why Disability Insurance is Important: Protecting Your Greatest Asset
As a physician one of your greatest assets is your ability to earn a substantial income once you have completed your training and residency, and you should protect it with disability insurance. Most physicians will graduate with a healthy amount of student loan debt from years of schooling, likely totaling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while this might be a daunting amount to have to pay back, the opportunity to earn a great income throughout your working career makes the investment worthwhile.
If your ability to practice medicine in your chosen field and use the skills that you have gained during your years of school and training were to disappear, the ability to pay off your student loans, not to mention being able to achieve your goals and live a life that you enjoy would be drastically reduced. Insurance companies estimate that as many as one in seven doctors will be disabled at some point during their career. The importance of your future income and the high likelihood of needing to rely on disability insurance are the reasons why it is such an important topic for all physicians to understand.
Short-Term vs Long-Term Disability Insurance
There are different variations of disability insurance: short-term and long-term disability insurance policies. The benefit period – or how long you receive payments if you become disabled – can last up to two years for short-term policies. Long-term policies are designed to cover your working career, with most policies ending at the age of 65. For this article we will be focusing on the more important of the two, long-term disability insurance (LTD).
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Employer-Provided/Sponsored Group Long-Term Disability Insurance
Many employers offer a group long-term disability insurance to employees. This is a great first step in protecting your long-term earning potential, but relying solely on employer-provided coverage can come with some drawbacks.
Some of the benefits of employer sponsored long-term disability insurance are:
- Lower cost
- Easier to qualify for (usually does not require medical screening)
The list of potential drawbacks for employer-provided coverage is longer, but that doesn’t mean that employer-provided disability insurance is a bad thing it just means you have some extra homework to do when choosing an individual long-term disability insurance policy to make sure you are getting the correct coverage.
Potential drawbacks are:
- Any occupation definition of total disability
- No portability if you leave your employer
- Benefits are taxable (when employer paid)
- Offsets with other benefits such as social security
- Capped benefit amount
An employer-provided group long-term disability policy is a great place to start when it comes to coverage, but you are almost certainly going to want to supplement that coverage with an individual policy that provides a full level of income replacement as well as the ability to maintain coverage if you switch employers in the future. Let’s look at an example of the benefits from a group policy and why you would want to supplement with an individual policy as well.
Employer provided long-term disability coverage typically has a maximum monthly benefit cap along with only replacing a percentage of an employee’s. Also since this is usually a benefit provided by your employer on a pretax basis, the employee ends up paying income tax on the benefit they receive, so for example:
Let’s say Doctor Doom earns $400,000 per year and is covered by a LTD plan that covers 60% of income up to a maximum of $15,000 per month. Under the plan they are insured as if they are making $300,000 (60% of $300,000 provides for $180,000 or $15,000 per month, the plans monthly benefit). Dr. Doom would also still owe income tax on the $180,000, lowering their benefit further.
Important Contract Provisions and Riders
There are different provisions and riders that are included in a disability insurance policy that may affect the cost and benefits that you are entitled to receive should you need to make a claim. The list below contains a few of the most important provisions and riders to understand when choosing a policy.
Definition of Total Disability: Own-Occupation vs Any Occupation
The definition of disability is an important distinction within the policy. Under an own-occupation definition, someone would be considered disabled if they could not perform the functions of their occupation, whereas with an any occupation definition as long as they could perform the functions of any occupation, they would not be considered disabled.
A basic example would be if a surgeon who through illness or injury lost their fine motor control and could no longer perform surgery (their occupation), but could still work an office job, they would be considered disabled under an own-occupation definition but not an any occupation definition.
This is a provision that allows a partial benefit to be paid if someone is not totally disabled but are in a situation where they cannot perform all the duties of their occupation or cannot work as many hours and suffer a reduction in income.
This is the period of time before you are able to start taking benefits. You can think of this as being similar to the deductible in a health insurance plan. 90 days is a typical length for most long-term policies, but elimination periods of 0 days, 180 days, or longer can also be selected.
The benefit period is the period of time that the policy will pay out disability benefits. This can range in time from two years all the way up to the insured’s lifetime. The most common benefit period is up to age 65
Recovery and Transition Benefits
Policies can offer a recovery or transition benefits to continue paying benefits to someone after the insured has fully recovered. For example, in the case of a solo-practitioner who has been disabled for a significant period of time and eventually recovers. They will likely have seen a number of their patients leave and find other physicians. Transition benefits could be used to supplement their income as they build back their patient base and income.
Non-Cancellable and Guaranteed Renewable
When a policy is both non-cancelable and guaranteed renewable it means that the insurer cannot change the policy terms or increase the premiums as long as the insured pays the scheduled premium. This offers the insured the greatest amount of protection. There are policies that are only guaranteed renewal (not non-cancellable) which allow the insurer to change premium rates in the future. This may provide the insured with savings on the initial premiums but leaves them open to rate increases in the future.
Future Increase Option, Benefit Increase Rider, Benefit Purchase Rider, Benefit Update
These options allow the insured to increase benefits or purchase more coverage in the future. Importantly the insured is able purchase additional benefits without undergoing additional medical underwriting. These are beneficial options for physicians early in their career as they can purchase increased benefits to keep up with their increases in salary without having to go through the medical underwriting process again.
A catastrophic disability benefit rider allows you to receive an additional monthly benefit if you are unable to perform 2 or more functions of daily living (dressing, bathing yourself, etc), total and permanent loss of sight or hearing, or cognitive impairment. The reasoning behind this rider is that the additional benefits could be used to pay for someone to provide in-home care or medical expenses not covered under your traditional health insurance.
Cost of Living Adjustments
COLA is a rider that provides increased cost of living adjustments for claim payments to keep up with inflation. This is especially important the younger you are when purchasing your policy as inflation can take a toll on benefit payments over time.
Long-Term Disability Insurance Cost
Long-term disability insurance for physicians can be expensive. Premium costs tend to be in the range of 2-6% of income, and traditionally policies are much more expensive for women than men. This is primarily due to the higher risk of disability for women due to pregnancy and pregnancy related illnesses. According to the Journal of the American Society of Certified Life Underwriters a 35-year old woman is three times as likely as a man of the same age to become disabled for 90 days or more.
Graded vs Level Premiums
Graded premiums start out lower than level premiums and increase over time, whereas level premiums will remain the same for the life of the policy. If you are hell-bent on paying off your student loans, saving a ton and becoming financially independent early in your career then the graded premiums might make sense. But for most physicians, getting coverage early in their careers and choosing level premiums is the better bet.
Insurers offer a few different payment frequency options: annual, quarterly, monthly. With more frequent payments costing more than making one annual payment. This can usually be changed without affecting the policy so starting out with monthly payments early in your career and then switching to an annual payment once you can afford it is a good option.
This article provides an overview on the basics of disability insurance and is by no means an exhaustive guide. When selecting a disability policy make sure to get multiple quotes and understand the specifics of your policy and what it covers. Your skills and your income, especially at the start of your career, are your most important asset. Make sure to protect it by including disability insurance in your financial plan.