By Alden Wicker
December 1989. My father gathered up his things in his New Jersey office and headed to the door, eager to get home to celebrate the holidays with our family. A co-worker stopped him to chat. "Walter, what do you want for Christmas?"
"Nothing at all. I have everything I've ever wanted. I've got my three girls." In other words, my mother, my 9-year-old sister and 3-year-old me.
Up In the Air
My father got his private pilot's license in 1970 right after the army. "He absolutely adored flying," my mom tells me. "He didn't want to do anything else in his free time, besides hanging out with you guys." He bought a small, used, two-engine Piper airplane in 1988 for commuting back and forth to his two offices in New Jersey and North Carolina. He was a careful pilot and took attentive-almost obsessive-care of his plane.
But just a few weeks before that Christmas, he had an annual inspection, and the mechanic said he was missing a small part for detecting fire in the engine, but he would probably be fine until that part arrived.
My dad climbed in, taxied out to the runway, pushed the throttle forward and lifted into the sky.
The Life We Had
Life was good for my family in 1989. My father was the well-paid president of a marketing company, and made extra income from his side consulting business. My mother stayed at home raising my sister and me. She hadn't worked since 1980, when my sister was born.
Mom and Dad had just moved us to a tiny town in North Carolina to be closer to family. They bought some land, started building their dream home and convinced my grandparents to build a little home nearby. After looking at the dismal public schools, my parents enrolled my sister in private school and planned to do the same for me.
In short, they had a lot of financial obligations that depended on my father's income. But they were solid financially, with an emergency fund of about two year's take-home pay.
My mother set the budget, handled the mortgage paperwork on our new home and paid the bills. Around the time I was born, she took a look at my dad's life insurance coverage through his job. Many basic policies from employers will pay only about $30,000–not enough to support a family our size for very long.
So she set about calculating how much we would need if something were to happen, taking into account things like our mortgage and living expenses. She took out an additional term life policy to cover him, and a whole life policy for herself that was also meant to finance my sister's and my college educations. (Here's the difference between term life and whole life policies.)
She didn't know at the time, but it would turn out to be the smartest financial decision she would ever make.
When Bad Things Happen to Happy Families
My grandmother clearly remembers that day. On a step ladder at my grandparents' house, my mother called to my grandfather, "Dad? Come quick. I feel like I'm going to faint." My grandfather got her off the ladder, and she laid down for a few minutes.
My grandmother sees this as proof of my mother and father's tight bond, because at almost that exact time in New Jersey, my father radioed the airport, saying his right engine was on fire. A few minutes later, he radioed again, saying the engine had broken off and he was in a downward spiral. Those were his last words. The official report listed the damage to the plane as "destroyed."
My grandmother got the call from a friend of my father's, when she was in our kitchen with me and my sister. She kept her cool (remarkable, since she considered my dad one of her best friends in the world), calling a relative to come and get me and my sister. Then she drove home to tell my mother.
I was barely 3 at the time, so I don't remember much about this time. The only utterly sad thing I do remember is a vision of my mother sometime during the weeks after, draped over the steering wheel of her pick-up truck, weeping.
The thing is, life went on, and I have many happy memories. I remember my mother asking me a few months later what color I wanted my new bedroom to be. ("Pink!") I remember Mrs. Stamp's private pre-school, where I learned about cocoons and how to spell "cat." I remember walking, my hand in my sister's, on the way to our grandparents' house for a delicious Southern dinner of chicken and dumplings. I also remember my mother tapping numbers into her desk calculator, and the "chit chit chit" of it printing the results on ticker tape. She never looked at the numbers on the tape with panic or worry.
None of this would have been possible without life insurance.
If We Didn't Have Life Insurance ...
My mother was faced with a long list of sudden expenses: the funeral, lawyer fees for executing my dad's estate, a mortgage, living expenses, private school and/or child care, and attempting to save for two college tuitions. If not for life insurance, she'd be doing all that with no income whatsoever, no job experience and savings that would only have lasted a few years.
It wouldn't have been easy for her to get a job after nine years out of the workforce, especially in our tiny town. "I had no career to fall back on," she says. "I would have had to go back to school." She would have disappeared into the workforce and night school, and my sister would have been yanked from her school right after we lost our father.
We also wouldn't have been able to finish the house, which would have meant an unsellable home with a giant mortgage. It would later take us three years to find a buyer for the finished home.
Life insurance answered all those questions. "It's wrenching, but it's a relatively simple process," my mother says of making the life insurance claim. "You call up the insurance company; you tell them what happened. You fill out a form and you send in a death certificate." Then they send you a check. (Today, most life insurance companies actually refuse to insure people with non-commercial pilot licenses, presumably because of a rash of accidents.)
In our case, the life insurance paid off the mortgage, and provided enough for my mother to continue to stay at home with us until I was in high school. It funded private school for my sister and me through 8th grade. Although we had only paid nine years of premiums, we received a giant influx of money that would sustain us until my mom reinvented herself as an interior designer when I was in high school and reentered the workforce on her own terms.
Of course, life wasn't the way it was before. The dinner parties went away, overseas vacations changed to a week at the beach once a year and dining out a trip to Bud's BBQ. But I was happy. I never noticed anything was "wrong" until I realized in third grade that, hey, everyone else has a dad and I didn't. But now, as a grown adult, I realize how incredibly lucky I've been to have the life and opportunities I did. Things could have been so much worse.
The Advice My Mom Gives Anyone Who Will Listen
My mother has this advice for parents: "You have, have, have to get life insurance. Figure out what you can cut so you can afford it. It's much more important to have life insurance than that extra dinner out." Depending on your age and your health-see more about how to get quotes on policies below-a 20-year term life insurance policy with $1 million in coverage can cost as little as $50 a month.
Read Life Insurance 101 to learn about the basics. Then, use this checklist to take out a policy yourself.
Hopefully, you'll never need it. But as my family learned, bad things do happen. Life insurance couldn't replace my dad, but it did replace the income we depended on, and kept my childhood relatively intact.
Love reading other people's financial tales? Check out more great LearnVest-exclusive personal stories.
See more on Learnvest:
5 Ways Life Insurance WIll Save Your Family
10 Financial Things Every Parent Should Do
Life Insurance Made Easy ... Well, as Easy as It Gets
By Alden Wicker