Beneficiaries of a life insurance policy (i.e. those who benefit from the policy) typically assume that they can start collecting on the policy at any time once the insured dies. While this is often the case, there are certain circumstances that may exclude them from collecting anything under the policy. One such exclusion is the suicide clause.
Suicide is defined as the intentional killing of oneself. Life insurance policies variously refer to suicide simply as "suicide," or as "intentional self-destruction," or "death by one’s own hand." Although these phrases all describe the same incident, questions of interpretation can arise. A number of states have focused on the question of what intent is required in order for a death to be considered a suicide.
Suicide clauses appear almost universal in life insurance policies. They are difficult to recognize, however, as suicide clauses can appear anywhere in a life insurance policy and are often no more than one or two sentences long. These exclusions may easily be overlooked, and even if they are read, they may not be easily understood.
If a court finds that a decedent (i.e. person that has died) with an insurance policy has committed suicide, a suicide clause embedded in the life insurance policy will eliminate any recovery under the policy (aside from a refund of premiums paid). Thus, knowing which situations are considered suicides will aid beneficiaries in determining whether they are barred from recovering under a life insurance policy. Such situations include those where:
- Die commiting a "felonious activity": Felonious activity means engaging in any activity that constitutes a felony. Such activity may also include intentionally overdosing on illegal drugs or alcohol or shooting at armed police officers who had arrived to arrest the insured.
- Die intentionally performing acts with a high probability of death: Examples of such situations include playing Russian Roulette (which involves placing a partially loaded revolver to one’s head and pulling the trigger), excessively overdosing on drugs known to cause death, and driving while extremely intoxicated.
- Cause their own death in an "obvious manner": In these situations, a decedent is clearly responsible for taking his own life. Examples include a person shooting himself, driving off a cliff, jumping off a building, hanging himself, etc…
- Deaths where the decedent asks to be killed by someone else: Even if an insured decedent has expressed an unquestionable desire to die, situations where she enlists another person’s aid to end her life is considered homicide and not suicide. An example of such a situation would be a decedent handing a gun to another person and asking to be shot.
- Self-inflicted deaths by employees in the workplace: An employee’s self-inflicted death may result in worker’s compensation benefits if the suicide results from the occupational injury. An example would be a worker who intentionally jumps from a one-story roof he was repairing in an attempt to collect benefits for his injury and then later dies in the hospital from injuries resulting from the fall. This category also includes self-inflicted deaths due to severe depression resulting from a work-related injury.
- Driving an automobile on the highway at 100 miles per hour
- Unintentional drug or alcohol overdoses
- Situations where the decedent was insane at the time of death: Whether the insanity assertion varies in effectiveness from state to state, it will typically make it more difficult for an insurance company to prove that the decedent committed suicide, thereby allowing recovery.
In any situation where it may be questionable whether an insured’s death was the result of suicide, an insurance company is likely to claim that a suicide clause will bar your recovery as a beneficiary. Since determinations as to whether or not a decedent has committed suicide vary on case-by-case basis, having an attorney experienced with life insurance is essential. A business attorney will be able to analyze the language of the policy to make sure that a suicide clause exists and will also strengthen the probability that you may recover under the life insurance policy in question.