[Welcome IHIAA members!]
(This is a bit long, but well worth the read).
My father never was the picture of health. He smoked, he drank, and he ate things that most people wouldn’t touch unless they had to break into the box marked “Survival Kit - Last Option.” Vienna sausage does not a meal make. He constantly had some manner of cold, cough, or other malady, and we never really thought much of it. Normally, he would shuffle around for a few days, then get back to life. So, at Thanksgiving 2006 we didn’t really think anything of it when Chock developed a nagging cough that just wouldn’t go away.
By Christmas 2006, it still hadn’t gone away. He was also beginning to have some balance issues, some troubles with his memory, and was tripping over words. He didn’t want to see a doctor - half because he didn’t want to believe something could be wrong, and half because he just wasn’t the type to go to see someone until limbs were actively falling off.
He got progressively worse over the next few months and eventually couldn’t deny the fact that he truly needed to go see a doctor. It was May 9th, 2007 - my parents’ 32nd wedding anniversary - when he was formally diagnosed with Stage IV cancer (brain, lung, bone, blood, and colon). He started aggressive chemotherapy on May 13th, his 71st birthday.
On July 19th, 2007, at 12:40 in the morning, my father died. Very shortly thereafter, we realized that we had some serious problems.
You see, before Chock passed away, he had had a brain tumor the size of a baseball. His mental faculties were somewhat impaired, to say the least, and so some of his last financial decisions were...less than rational. Just before he passed, in one of his last moments of lucidity, he told my mother “I’m sorry, Jo. But I sure am glad I’m not going to have to be the one who has to clean up the mess I made.”
And holy crap, was he right. When Chock died, the bills hit us hard. Chemo had cost $8,000 a round. The cost of his two-month hospital stay in a private room was astronomical. Numerous tests, multiple labs, home hospice care, none of it was cheap. The $1,000 a month my family was paying for his “insurance” had drained us as well - the only thing that “defined benefit” plan defined was exactly what position we were expected to take as we were screwed. Add to that his already extant debt, and we were in deep.
Did I mention that this was all piled on top of my mother’s medical bills? She’s been handicapped for fifteen years with Meinere’s disease. Twenty-three surgeries haven’t been cheap - especially when several of them were excluded from coverage as “experimental procedures.”
Now, let’s make matters worse. Before Chock passed away, he told us that he had a $250,000 life insurance policy through New York Life. Well, that was partly true - at one time, yes, he had life insurance through NYL. The tumor that was altering his speech was also mixing up the chronological order of his memories. Tracing the money flow would reveal that the policy had lapsed years and years ago when he had pulled all the cash value out.
I always wondered how he had been able to afford that boat.
The average American family declares bankruptcy at $11,000-ish of debt. We were in to the tune of $167,000 (before funeral costs) with no life insurance coming.
If you’ll recall, mid-2007 was around the time the real estate market had really settled into its free-fall. My mother’s only option was to sell the house that she and my father had lived in together for thirty-two years. There was no such thing as a quick sell in that market, and the process was torturous. We couldn’t afford storage, and we had to clean out a massive amount of my father’s things in a short period of time to prepare the house for sale. I drove twelve hours round-trip every weekend for months, coming home from college to help my mother throw out over thirty years of memories. It was easily as depressing as sitting next to my father’s bed while he died.
Though we watched the money as closely as possible, there was only so much of it - and it was running out. By the time the house sold, my mother would later tell me, she had about thirty days of cash left before she would have had to declare bankruptcy. And when it sold, it did so for $75,000 under its appraised value.
Now, sad though that story was, it has a happier ending than most. My mother lives in Alabama now, back where she grew up. Between her disability, teacher retirement, and social security, she has enough to get by each month and put some back in savings. And I have a new career path than the one I originally envisioned. I sell insurance now, and I know that there’s not a single person that I work with who will ever find themselves in the situation that my family was in. I’m saving the world, one policy at a time.
This story has several morals worth remembering:
Don’t count on the ability to sell your assets in the event of a death in the family to float you. It might not come through in time, it’s painful, and you’re not going to be in any sort of position to get yourself in a positive bargaining position.
Life insurance does more than provide a bit of money upon a death. It allows the survivors time to grieve in dignity instead of spending sleepless nights throwing out years of accumulated memories.
That $2000 prescription drug cap might not seem like such a big deal when you’re taking a z-pack once every two years for a sinus infection. It’s a huge deal when you’re staring down $8,000 a day of chemotherapy drugs.
Plan for the worst when things are good. You’re rational, you’re calm, and you can think clearly. If you wait until the crap has already hit the fan, you’re going to end up scrambling - like we did.
Don’t just buy insurance. Hire an agent, and make it someone you trust. Talk to them. There are a few insurance agents that give us all a bad name, but I promise, some of us truly do care about keeping your family safe.
(Nick is a friend, and fellow agent in the Atlanta area. He is wise beyond his years. Perhaps that is because he has lived through things most of us never want to think of, and pray we never experience).