Characteristics of Insurance Contracts - Part 1
In this section we elaborate on the following:
The concept and importance of utmost good faith in insurance contracts
The feature of adhesion and why it plays a significant role in the event of contract disputes
The importance of indemnity and how it is enforced
The personal nature of insurance contracts
When an agent sells an insurance policy, he or she is selling a contract. A contract is an agreement enforceable by law. For any such agreement to be legally enforceable, it must meet the following minimum requirements:
Based on utmost good faith
Contracts of adhesion
Contracts of indemnity
Personal to the insured
Based on Utmost Good Faith
When an insurer considers accepting a risk, it must have accurate and complete information to make a reasonable decision. Should the insurer assume the risk and, if so, under what terms and conditions?
Because insurance involves a contract of uberrimae fidei, or utmost good faith, potential insureds are held to the highest standards of truthfulness and honesty in providing information for the underwriter.
In the case of contracts other than for insurance, it is generally assumed that each party has equal knowledge and access to the facts, and thus each is subject to requirements of “good faith,” not “utmost good faith.”
In contrast, eighteenth-century ocean marine insurance contracts were negotiated under circumstances that forced underwriters to rely on information provided by the insured because they could not get it firsthand.
For example, a ship being insured might be unavailable for inspection because it was on the other side of the world. Was the ship seaworthy? The underwriter could not inspect it, so he (they were all men in those days) required the insured to warrant that it was. If the warranty was not strictly true, the contract was voidable.
The penalty for departing from utmost good faith was having no coverage when a loss occurred. Today, the concept of utmost good faith is implemented by the doctrines of (1) representations and (2) concealment. 
When people are negotiating with insurers for coverage, they make statements concerning their exposures, and these statements are called representations.
Note that “material” has been specified. If an insurer wants to void a contract it has issued to a person in reliance upon the information she provided, it must prove that what she misrepresented was material. That is, the insurer must prove that the information was so important that if the truth had been known, the underwriter would not have made the contract or would have done so only on different terms.
It is not uncommon for students to misrepresent to their auto insurers where their cars are garaged, particularly if premium rates at home are lower than they are where students attend college.
Because location is a factor in determining premium rates, where a car is garaged is a material fact. Students who misrepresent this or other material facts take the chance of having no coverage at the time of a loss. The insurer may elect to void the contract.
If, you stated in an application for life insurance that you were born on March 2 when in fact you were born on March 12, such a misrepresentation would not be material. A correct statement would not alter the underwriter’s decision made on the incorrect information. The policy is not voidable under these circumstances.
On the other hand, suppose you apply for life insurance and state that you are in good health, even though you’ve just been diagnosed with a severe heart ailment. This fact likely would cause the insurer to charge a higher premium or not to sell the coverage at all.
The insurer may contend that the policy never existed , so loss by any cause is not covered. In the case of life insurance, the insurer can void the policy on grounds of material misrepresentation only for two years.
Representations are made for the purpose of inducing insurers to enter into contracts; that is, provide insurance.
If people misrepresent material facts- information that influences a party’s decision to accept the contract-insurers can void their contracts and they will have no coverage, even though they do have insurance policies. In essence, the contracts never existed.
Telling the truth is not enough. One must also reveal those material facts about the exposure that only he or she knows and that he or she should realize are relevant.
If the insurance company requires the completion of a long, detailed application, an insured who fails to provide information the insurer neglected to ask about cannot be proven guilty of concealment unless it is obvious that certain information should have been volunteered.
In both life and health insurance, most state insurance laws limit the period (usually one or two years) during which the insurer may void coverage for a concealment or misrepresentation. Other types of insurance contracts do not involve such time limits.
Suppose, for example, that you have no insurance on your home.
Upon your arrival home one afternoon, you discover that the neighbor’s house-only thirty feet from yours-is on fire. You promptly telephone the agency where you buy your auto insurance and apply for a homeowner’s policy, asking that it be put into effect immediately. You answer all the questions the agent asks but fail to mention the fire next door.
You have intentionally concealed a material fact you obviously realize is relevant. You are guilty of concealment (intentionally withholding a material fact), and the insurer has the right to void the contract.
Contracts of Adhesion
Insurance policies are contracts of adhesion, meaning insureds have no input in the design of a policy’s terms.
Unlike contracts formulated by a process of bargaining, most insurance contracts are prepared by the insurer and then accepted or rejected by the buyer.
The insured does not specify the terms of coverage but rather accepts the terms as stipulated. Thus, he or she adheres to the insurer’s contract. That is the case for personal lines.
In most business lines, insurers use policies prepared by the Insurance Services Office (ISO), but in some cases contracts are negotiated. These contracts are written by risk managers or brokers who then seek underwriters to accept them, whereas most individuals go to an agent to request coverage as is.
The fact that buyers usually have no influence over the content or form of insurance policies has had a significant impact on the way courts interpret policies when there is a dispute. 
When the terms of a policy are ambiguous, the courts favor the insured because it is assumed that the insurer that writes the contract should know what it wants to say and how to state it clearly.
Further, the policy language generally is interpreted according to the insured’s own level of expertise and situation, not that of an underwriter who is knowledgeable about insurance. When the terms are not ambiguous, however, the courts have been reluctant to change the contract in favor of the insured.
Contracts of Adhesion (Continued)
Should courts believe that the insured party had been misled by ambiguous policy language, the court may rule in favor of the insured. Courts are guided by the expectations principle (or reasonable expectations principle), which may be stated as follows:
The objectively reasonable expectations of applicants and intended beneficiaries regarding the terms of insurance contracts will be honored even though painstaking study of the policy provisions would have negated those expectations. 
In other words, the expectations principle holds that, in the event of a dispute, courts will read insurance policies as they would expect the insured to do.
Thus, the current approach to the interpretation of contracts of adhesion is threefold:
First: To favor the insured when terms of the contract drafted by the insurer are ambiguous.
Second: To read the contract as an insured would
Third: To determine the coverage on the basis of the reasonable expectations of the insured.
Many insurance contracts are contracts of indemnity. Indemnity means the insurer agrees to pay no more (and no less) than the actual loss suffered by the insured.
The indemnity principle has practical significance both for the insurer and for society. If insureds could gain by having an insured loss, some would deliberately cause losses. This would result in a decrease of resources for society, an economic burden for the insurance industry, and (ultimately) higher insurance premiums for all insureds.
Moreover, if losses were caused intentionally rather than as a result of chance occurrence, the insurer likely would be unable to predict costs satisfactorily. An insurance contract that makes it possible for the insured to profit by an event insured against violates the principle of indemnity and may prove poor business to the insurer.
Suppose your house is insured for $200,000 at the time it is totally destroyed by fire. If its value at that time is only $180,000, that is the amount the insurance company will pay.  You cannot collect $200,000 because to do so would exceed the actual loss suffered.
You would be better off after the loss than you were before. The purpose of the insurance contract is-or should be-to restore the insured to the same economic position as before the loss.
Indemnity Concept (Continued)
The doctrine of indemnity is implemented and supported by several legal principles and policy provisions, including the following:
Actual cash value provision
Other insurance provisions
Insurable interest is financial interest in life or property that is subject to loss. The law concerning insurable interest is important to the buyer of insurance because it determines whether the benefits from an insurance policy will be collectible.
If a fire or auto collision causes loss to a person or firm, that person or firm has an insurable interest. A person not subject to loss does not have an insurable interest.
Thus, all insureds should be familiar with what constitutes an insurable interest, when it must exist, and the extent to which it may limit payment under an insurance policy.
Basis for Insurable Interest
Many situations constitute an insurable interest. The most common is ownership of property. An owner of a building will suffer financial loss if it is damaged or destroyed by fire or other peril. Thus, the owner has an insurable interest in the building.
If part or all of a building is leased to a tenant who makes improvements in the leased space, such improvements become the property of the building owner on termination of the lease. Nevertheless, the tenant has an insurable interest in the improvements because he or she will suffer a loss if they are damaged or destroyed during the term of the lease. This commonly occurs when building space is rented on a “bare walls” basis. To make such space usable, the tenant must make improvements.
If a tenant has a long-term lease with terms more favorable than would be available in the current market but that may be canceled in the event that the building is damaged, the tenant has an insurable interest in the lease.
A bailee-someone who is responsible for the safekeeping of property belonging to others and who must return it in good condition or pay for it-has an insurable interest. When you take your clothes to the local dry-cleaning establishment, for example, it acts as a bailee, responsible for returning your clothes in good condition.
A mortgage lender on a building has an insurable interest in the building. For the lender, loss to the security, such as the building being damaged or destroyed by fire, may reduce the value of the loan.
On the other hand, an unsecured creditor generally does not have an insurable interest in the general assets of the debtor because loss to such assets does not directly affect the value of the creditor’s claim against the debtor.
Basis for Insurable Interest (Continued)
A person has an insurable interest in his or her own life and may have such an interest in the life of another.  An insurable interest in the life of another person may be based on a close relationship by blood or marriage, such as a wife’s insurable interest in her husband.
It may also be based on love and affection, such as that of a parent for a child, or on financial considerations.
A creditor, for example, may have an insurable interest in the life of a debtor, and an employer may have an insurable interest in the life of a key employee.
When Insurable Interest Must Exist- Property Insurance
In property insurance, the interest must exist at the time of the loss. As the owner of a house, one has an insurable interest in it. If the owner insures himself against loss to the house caused by fire or other peril, that person can collect on such insurance only if he still has an insurable interest in the house at the time the damage occurs.
Thus, if one transfers unencumbered title to the house to another person before the house is damaged, he cannot collect from the insurer, even though the policy may still be in force. He no longer has an insurable interest.
On the other hand, if the owner has a mortgage on the house that was sold, he will continue to have an insurable interest in the amount of the outstanding mortgage until the loan is paid.
When Insurable Interest Must Exist- Life Insurance
Life insurance requires an insurable interest only at the inception of the contract.
When the question of insurable interest in life insurance was being adjudicated in England, such policies provided no cash surrender values; the insurer made payment only if the person who was the subject  of insurance died while the policy was in force. An insured who was also the policyowner and unable to continue making premium payments simply sacrificed all interest in the policy.
This led to the practice of some policyowners/insureds selling their policies to speculators who, as the new owners, named themselves the beneficiaries and continued premium payments until the death of the insured. This practice is not new but appears to have grown, as reported in the Wall Street
When Insurable Interest Must Exist- Life Insurance (Continued)
Viatical Settlement Companies
Viatical-settlement companies, which buy life insurance policies from persons with short life expectancies, such as AIDS patients in the 1990s. Viatical settlement companies ran into trouble after new drug regimens extended the lives of AIDS patients, and investors found themselves waiting years or decades for a return on their investments.
In contrast, life-settlement companies contend that, because there is no cure for old age, investors cannot lose in buying the policies from people over sixty-five years old with terminal illnesses such as cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and liver disease. These companies don’t sell to individual investors, but rather package the policies they buy into portfolios for institutional investors.
Life Settlement Companies
Life-settlement companies emerged recently for seniors. Life-settlement companies buy life insurance policies from senior citizens for a percentage of the value of the death benefits. These companies pay the premiums and become the beneficiary when the insured passes away.
An example of a life-settlement company is Stone Street Financial, Inc., in Bethesda, Maryland, which bought the value of $500,000 of life insurance for $75,775 from an older person. The person felt he was making money on the deal because the policy surrender value was only $5,000.
When Insurable Interest Must Exist (Continued)
According to Scope Advisory GmbH (Berlin), which rates life- settlement companies, “Institutional investments helped increase the face value of life insurance policies traded through the life settlement market to about $10 billion in 2004, from $3 billion in 2003.” There is a regulatory maze regarding these arrangements. 
Because the legal concept of requiring an insurable interest only at the inception of the life insurance contract has continued, it is possible to collect on a policy in which such interest has ceased.
If the life of a key person in a firm is insured, and the firm has an insurable interest in that key person’s life because his or her death would cause a loss to the firm, the policy may be continued in force by the firm even after the person leaves the firm. The proceeds may be collected when he or she dies.
This point was brought to light with the publication of the Wall Street Journal story “Big Banks Quietly Pile Up ‘Janitors’ Insurance.” 
The article reports that banks and other large employers bought inexpensive life coverage-or janitor’s insurance-on the lives of their employees. This practice did not require informing the employees or their families. Coverage was continued even after the employees left the company. Upon the death of the employees, the employer collected the proceeds and padded their bottom-line profits with tax-free death benefits.
Many newspapers reported the story as a breach of ethical behavior. The Charlotte Observer (North Carolina) reported that employers were not required to notify workers of corporate-owned life insurance (COLI) policies in which employers own life insurance policies on employees. However, the newspaper continued, “some of the Charlotte area’s biggest companies said they have notified all employees covered by the policies, but declined to say how
they informed the workers.
Use of COLI policies has raised outcries from human rights activists and prompted federal legislation calling for disclosure.”  The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) formed a special working group to study these issues. Dissatisfaction with the janitor insurance scandal led the state of Washington to instate a law requiring employers to obtain written permission from an employee before buying life insurance on the employee’s life.
Key employees can still be exempt from the law. In 2005, members of the U.S. House of Representative also proposed legislation to limit such practices. 
END of Part 1 of UNIT
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