Physician assisted suicide and life insurance - a hypothetical

Legislation will soon be introduced in Canada to legalize ‘physician-assisted death’ which, in at least some cases will actually be ‘physician-assisted suicide’. I use the latter phrase (with the word ‘suicide’) since some of the protocols already put out by my provincial College of Physicians will involve a physician prescribing certain oral agents which the patient will voluntarily take by mouth.

Although the precise wording remains to be seen, preliminary reports indicate that physician-assisted death or physician-assisted suicide will be permissible in instances where the patient has a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” which has caused “intolerable suffering”. All of which brings me to my hypothetical.

If someone with, say, widely metastatic lung cancer (with spread to bones and elsewhere) opts for physician-assisted death or physician-assisted suicide (which no one will dispute is a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” that causes “intolerable suffering”), will that person be considered to have committed suicide when it comes to interpreting their life insurance policy provisos?

Perhaps the insurance will have been in effect for less than two years (the usual waiting period before an insurance company will pay out for death by suicide)? Or perhaps there is a clause applying indefinitely to death by suicide, i.e. “insurance claim will NOT be paid for death resulting from any act of self harm” (or words to that effect)?

Bottom line question - will physician-assisted suicide be considered “suicide” for life insurance purposes?

(It is possible that there is no definite answer to my question. I would still hope it can stay in GQ since I am not looking to debate the question. I am wondering HOW it might be approached from a legal standpoint, and that’s GQ territory (IMHO)).


What is the argument that it should not constitute suicide for purposes of a policy exclusion?

I have no expertise, but I can’t imagine it NOT being considered suicide, and for insurance policies to operate normally by whatever payout terms that apply to suicide.

I can only speak from personal experience as a resident of a place where this has been legal for some time.

Back in 2008, the “Death With Dignity Act” was passed in Washington State, allowing physicians to help end the life of terminally ill patients.
In 2009 I took out a life insurance policy and due to the recent enactment of such act, the agent who set up my policy pointed out that an assisted death legal under the act would be considered a suicide to my insurance company and if it happened within 2 years my policy would not pay out. After 2 years would be fine.

I don’t see any reason to change anything except to perhaps better clarify the two year waiting period and other ways that that fraud may be involved. I don’t really have any objection to policies which exclude physician assisted suicide or any other means of death as long as it is clear to the policy holder.

Everyone thinks they’re immortal (even those who buy life insurance ;)) and would probably be okay with purchasing a policy with that clause. But . . .

. . . what you and others are saying is that the victim must suffer until the two year mark and then it’s okay to ask for the potion? Seems unfair. Especially when death is certain in the near future.

Well, that the person’s death is certain (or as certain as can ever be). So, waiting for the two-year mark before he can end it seems unfair. He’s going to die. The company WILL have to pay out, and soon. They won’t save a cent.* Why make someone suffer for a technicality?

*I can see making them pay two years of premium, though, before paying out

I used to be licensed to sell life insurance. As I understand it, within the first two years of a new policy, the insurance company can cancel the policy FOR ANYTHING SUSPICIOUS AT ALL, not just suicide. If you die of cancer 18 months in, they can say you lied on your application form by not disclosing this pre-existing condition. Heck, they can even get you for something silly like putting down the wrong zip code for your mailing address. If they do this, their only obligation is to refund all the premiums that were paid up to this point. But after two years, the policy becomes INCONTESTABLE. After the two years are up, they have to pay, even if evidence comes to light that you obtained the policy under fraudulent circumstances. Their chance to object has expired. AFAIK, this is the law in all 50 states.

Suicide itself does not invalidate the policy. It’s the idea that, if you commit suicide within the first two years, they conclude that you probably PLANNED to commit suicide all along and you obtained the policy in bad faith. That’s what invalidates the policy.

Insurance clauses that balk public policy are generally unenforceable. If the Canadian parliament has adopted assisted suicide as a matter of public policy in terminal patients, why should it constitute suicide?

Very informative, thanks. So, you’re saying that whether the person dies within two years from physician assisted suicide (to palliate a cancer) or from the cancer, it makes no difference? That would certainly answer my hypothetical.

I don’t get your last point. To me, if you buy life insurance with the intent of killing yourself soon after, but disguise it as an "accident, that’s committing fraud. However, if you can buy a policy today that allows you to kill yourself tomorrow and will still pay the beneficiary, more power to you.

Are you suggesting life insurance policy terms are unfair, or disguised, or what exactly? Or suggesting that policies should not be allowed to specify a time period during which suicide won’t be covered?

It leaves open the possibility of fraud. That problem already exists when someone hides a known disease when purchasing life insurance to start with. The victim is not being forced to suffer, it’s a choice he’ll make in order for his beneficiaries to profit. Life insurance is a business, nobody would have it if people could take out a policy on their deathbed.

Restrictions on life insurance can be reasonable and unreasonable, I’d take out a policy that excluded suicide and many other circumstances of death if there were substantial cost savings as a result. There probably wouldn’t be any that offer a sufficient savings, but it’s just a matter of cost/benefit analysis. The thing to do is take out insurance when you are young as I did, even if it provides ridiculous profit to the insurance company. I have a whole life policy that has paid for itself for the last 20 years and my family will benefit if I die. It’s not so important now that my kids are grown and wife will be well off now anyway, but it was worth the investment. If you have dependents it’s a good idea to have life insurance, and in the rare case where someone becomes terminally ill maybe just 6 months after their first child is born then it’s a tough call, but something that can be handled in the policy, it doesn’t need a law to require it. But because there’s a legal change to allow PAS then policies should be more explicit on the subject, and government regulations should clarify those policies, but still not require them to cover the two year gap if it is explicitly stated.

Because saying, “suicide is ok under some circumstances” is not changing the definition of what suicide is. At most it’s changing certain of the outcomes of suicide.

Changing the legal consequences of suicide is changing the definition of suicide, as far as public policy is concerned.

No. S/he’s saying that suicide is a specific policy exclusion for one or two years depending on the law of the jurisdiction. If you die of natural causes within that period you’re fine.

No, I’m saying that their historical implementation is at odds with (soon to be) current reality.

If the customer WILL be dead in the near future, the company WILL have to pay out the policy. There is thus no extra or inappropriate cost to the company* and certainly no fraud is being perpetrated. So, when physician-assisted suicide becomes a reality, why make the person suffer until the two year mark?

*although, as I said above, the customer (or his estate) might be obliged to pay two-years premium before the benefit is paid.

No one has addressed the physician-assisted death where, strictly speaking, it would not be a suicide (IMO), i.e. the patient is passive and the doc injects the lethal cocktail. Is that the same?

How is that? My understanding of suicide is “voluntarily taking actions to cease living, whether you take those actions yourself or you request assistance in it.”

What is your definition?

It doesn’t matter what my definition is. What matters is that assisted suicide has been illegal in Canada, and now it won’t be in some cases.

Is this what you want? Let’s say I buy a 100 thousand policy for 50 bucks a month. At my option, I can immediately pay $1200, kill myself the same day, and have my beneficiary collect $100,000?

Do you not see some problems here? I would pay for someone’s premium on a policy like this, so long as they made me the beneficiary and I trusted them to actually carry out the suicide. Hell I’d pay the $1200 and be willing to split the hundred grand with a couple of other people (like a spouse or a child) too.

Please explain how making it legal or illegal changes what IT is.

You’re talking fraud.

I am not talking about fraud. Let’s say someone bought a policy after taking a physical exam and undergoing cancer screening but is still unlucky enough to develop incurable cancer at, say, the 20 month mark. By the 22 month mark he is in excruciating pain although could probably survive for another two plus months if he was willing to endure it. The company will gladly pay out the benefit at the 24 month mark. So, he must suffer for two months in order for the benefits to be paid? Either way the company is on the hook. I don’t see the problem (for such legitimate claimants).