Umbrella Insurance Policies: Why You Might Want That Extra Protection

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Dan Ramsey, an independent insurance agent with Brandt, Ramsey and Associates in Alexandria, Va., says the most memorable claim on an umbrella insurance policy he was involved in was made by a small business owner who had purchased a $2 million policy.

"After attending a Christmas party, my client got involved in a fatal auto accident where the other driver was killed," says Ramsey. "My client was given a breathalyzer on the scene and exceeded the legal alcohol limit. He was sued for something like $1.25 million by the claimant's family and was legally liable for the damages, which were paid by the umbrella policy. The client was otherwise an upstanding citizen with no past history of these kinds of events."

Protection Beyond the Usual

While its easy to assume that only a rich person could need that much insurance coverage, you'd be surprised at how important an umbrella policy can be for an average member of the middle class. For example, if you have a car insurance policy with liability coverage, you may think you have enough protection in case of an accident. But a lawsuit like the one described above could quickly exceed the $100,000 or $300,000 insurance payout.

An umbrella policy provides an additional layer of insurance, typically $1 million or $2 million, above your auto insurance and your home insurance liability coverage. Consider the following scenarios where an umbrella policy would have been helpful:
  • A $1.2 million settlement in New Jersey where an underinsured driver hit a policeman who was completing paperwork at a traffic stop. The driver had to pay legal fees for his defense as well as the settlement.
  • $1.76 million was awarded to a mother and her 8-year-old child in Florida after a wave runner accident injured both of them. The mother needed corrective surgery after the initial injuries were treated.
Although 85 percent of umbrella insurance claims are related to car accidents, the policies offer protection against accidents that occur at your home, too -- for example, in case someone falls down your stairs and sues you, or your balcony collapses during a party. Many people opt for an umbrella policy because they have a pool or a trampoline on their property and fear the consequences of a child getting injured.

Then there's coverage for incidents you may not have even considered, such as accidents while you're driving in another country, or while you're on vacation and have rented a boat or Jet Ski.

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Another important feature of these policies is protection in a lawsuit against you for slander or defamation of character, or for decisions you might have made as a volunteer member of a nonprofit board. If you regularly blog about controversial topics or rant on Facebook, an umbrella policy just might be a good idea to protect your assets from a litigious individual who believes you've damaged their reputation.

That may sound unlikely, but it's not unheard of. In 2009, a high school student sued four other students and their families for $3 million because of derogatory comments the other students made about her on Facebook. While the lawsuit was eventually dismissed, reaching that verdict took two years and required considerable expenditures by the families. An umbrella policy can cover expenses related to such lawsuits.

You Have More to Protect Than You Think

You may be assuming that if you don't have $1 million to lose, you don't need an umbrella policy. Unfortunately, if you are sued by someone who falls down the stairs at your home or whom you injure in a car accident, you can be sued for more than just what you have in the bank.

Your retirement funds, investments, savings and even your future earnings are at risk if a judge allows someone to garnish your wages to pay off a settlement. In some states, the equity in your home can be part of the judgment and you would be forced to sell your home to pay someone who sues you.

If you own a house and have a retirement account or other investments, an umbrella policy of $1 million or more should be part of your financial plan. Most insurance companies offer these plans in increments up to $5 million, and some go up to $10 million.

Insurance companies require specific levels of liability coverage on your auto and home insurance policies before they will approve an umbrella policy, typically:
  • $300,000 per occurrence for personal liability, bodily injury, and property damage liability on your homeowners insurance policy
  • $250,000 per person for bodily injury and $500,000 per accident on your car insurance policy
  • $100,000 per accident for property damage on your car insurance policy
The average cost for a $1 million policy is $200 annually -- which you might find a relatively low price for the peace of mind and security it offers.

Michele Lerner is a contributing writer for The Motley Fool.

Your Insurance Doesn't Cover That: Hidden Dangers in the Fine Print
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Umbrella Insurance Policies: Why You Might Want That Extra Protection

When buying homeowners insurance, be sure that you're buying enough coverage to rebuild your home, if necessary. Don't look at market prices for homes, but rather at the replacement cost for your home, which would include removing what's left of your home, buying new building materials, and labor. "Guaranteed replacement" policies should cover the whole cost, while "replacement cost" coverage often covers less than the full amount. Check your policy to see what kind you have, and be sure that your home's value isn't being understated.

Also, know that in standard homeowners policies, many kinds of damage are typically excluded, such as that from earthquakes, floods, nuclear attacks. These days, mold damage is often excluded, too. If you're worried about any excluded risks, talk to your insurer. You can probably expand your coverage, for a price. You may also get it elsewhere, such as from the FEMA-administered National Flood Insurance Program, or the California Earthquake Authority.

You may know that dental or vision-related expenses are not covered by your health care insurance, but that's probably not all. Pre-existing conditions have long been excluded by many insurers, though President Obama's health care reform act is addressing that. A nose job or other cosmetic surgery, for example, is most likely excluded, too, no matter how much of an emergency you think your double chin is.

Your policy may also not cover ambulance services, maternity care, prosthetics, kidney dialysis, organ transplants, diabetes management, emergency-room visits, mental-health care, and care you receive outside the United States -- or any of a number of other expenses. Don't be overly alarmed -- policies vary widely, and you may be covered for many of the above costs, at least to some degree. Just be sure to find out what is and isn't covered, and when shopping for a policy, seek out the one that fits your needs and pocketbook best.

The main reason to get renters insurance is because many possible losses renters face are excluded from their landlords' insurance policies. If a roof leak destroys much of your collection of first-edition books, your landlord's insurance will likely fix the roof and any damage to your apartment's floor, but your book loss will probably be excluded. Thus, it's smart to get renters insurance, which is often rather inexpensive, as well.

When shopping for such policies, be sure you know whether losses will be insured for their replacement cost or their current, depreciated value. (The former is, of course, preferable.) Renters policies can include or exclude coverage if a guest is injured on your premises. If you'd like that coverage, ask for it. Know that in many renters policies, damage due to natural disasters or structural damage to the building may not be covered, too. If you're worried about those issues, including burst pipes, ask about it. You may need to add a rider to your policy.

There are coverage holes with car insurance, too. At a basic level, while most drivers carry liability coverage, many don't carry collision coverage, which will address damage to your car. Omitting it can make sense if you're driving a clunker that you'd just replace after an accident, but crunch some numbers before passing it up.

There are some tricky little car-insurance details, too. For example, a stolen car may not be covered if you left it running with the doors unlocked. Damage due to hitting an animal such as a deer, or damage from a lightning strike, tornado, or flood, may also be excluded or limited. Medical bills may also be off-limits unless you have medical coverage, and valuables stolen out of your car are also often excluded. (They may be covered via your homeowners policy, though.)

A key thing to understand about life insurance is that not everyone needs it. If no one is depending on your income, then sad though your demise will be, you need not protect against anyone's financial loss from it. But many people do have dependents, in the form of children, spouses, and even parents or others. So know that with life insurance, you may not be covered if the death is a suicide, if it happens as part of war-time combat or during the commission of a felony, or if it's due to a private-aircraft accident. (Deaths tied to commercial flights are typically covered.)

Also, if you regularly engage in dangerous activities such as car-racing, hang-gliding, or extreme mountain-climbing, a related death may not be covered -- unless you pay a premium for a rider to your policy. Lying on your insurance paperwork can also lead to a denied claim.

If you're an investor and you've got much of your retirement security resting on an account at a brokerage, you can take comfort that you're probably protected by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation. It's a bit like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which covers bank accounts, but it may not provide all the protection you expect it to. The SIPC protects the cash and securities such as stocks and bonds that you may have in your brokerage account -- in the event that the brokerage runs into deep trouble or fails, or if a broker steals your assets. It does not cover losses that occur if your stock or bond loses money or a company in which you're invested goes out of business.

Even FDIC protection has limits. It typically covers assets in bank accounts up to $250,000 for each person's accounts at each bank in each account ownership category. So if you have $350,000 in savings accounts at one bank, you may not be fully covered and you might want to divide the sum between two banks.

You're smart to look into insurance for all kinds of needs -- and smarter still to read the big and small print to be sure you understand what is and isn't covered. In many cases, you can add the extra protections you seek. That might come at a cost, but it might be worth it, too.

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