The Race to Get Life Insurance While Pregnant
When my fiancé and I found out I was pregnant in December, we put together a list of all the stuff we needed to do before the baby arrived: countless items to buy, must-read books to ensure our baby was the happiest on the block, classes to enroll in. We even went so far as to divide the list by trimester—priority items such as doctor’s visits would happen right away, while ordering the breast pump could wait until the last few months of my pregnancy. Somewhere in the third trimester, he penciled in, “Buy life insurance.”
Despite our wildly organized list, something ate away at me as I lay in bed at night anxiety-dreaming about our future. I earn more money than my partner does, and my fear went something like this: What if I die in childbirth and my fiancé has to solo-parent while earning enough money to care for both him and the baby indefinitely?
These were not just the typical neurotic bedtime jitters of an anal urbanite. I had reason to be concerned. The maternal mortality rate in the U.S. is abysmal. We rank dead last among similarly wealthy countries. The most recent report from the Centers for Disease Control’s National Vital Statistics System, released in January 2020, also paints a worrisome picture. In 2018, the latest year statistics are available, 658 women in the U.S. died of “maternal causes,” including deaths during pregnancy, at birth, or within 42 days of birth. That’s a total of 17.4 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.
I’m a white woman, but the stats for women of color are even scarier. The maternal death rate for black women is more than double than that of white women, clocking in at 37.1 deaths per 100,000 live births compared with 14.7 for white women. Hispanic women had the lowest maternal mortality rate, at 11.8 deaths per 100,000 births.
Age also matters—when I give birth at 43, I’ll be 7.7 times more likely to die than a woman under the age of 25.
I understand the risk is still relatively low—for every 100,000 women over 40 who give birth in the U.S., 99,918 are perfectly fine. But still, the statistics are enough to keep me up at night. Frightened, I googled life insurance and pregnancy and learned that, while pregnant women are eligible for life insurance, they are treated on a case-by-case basis, according to Policygenius, meaning until you apply, it’s impossible to know whether you can actually get it. If you’re young, healthy, and in your first trimester, you’ll probably be offered a plan with a price tag similar to your prepregnancy rate. But if, like me, you waited until your second trimester, or even later, your policy may not go into effect until after you give birth, which would essentially defeat the purpose.
I immediately rage-emailed a number of friends with kids to ask whether any of them had tried buying life insurance when they were pregnant. One responded that both she and her husband bought life insurance at the same time, and even though he was older and had a genetic heart condition, she had had to have a home visit and blood work and he hadn't. Another friend said she bought life insurance while she was pregnant 14 years ago and had to pay a “higher premium” because she was considered “overweight.” “You know, because I was more than 30 weeks pregnant,” she quipped. (In recent years some insurers, like AIG, say they will allow for weight gain depending on where you are in your pregnancy.) And still another explained that she couldn’t get life insurance because she was considered “too risky” even though she had an “extremely low-risk pregnancy.” “It made me think, at the time, about the continued risk we take as women when we get pregnant,” she wrote. To make matters worse, the insurance company told her “not to apply while pregnant because the premiums would be much higher because of the risk” and that she should wait until after she gave birth. “How very odd, no?” she said. “It’s sobering to remember that being pregnant is taking on a significant health risk.”
The problem is that waiting until after you give birth could also mean being penalized for postpartum depression, including being charged more money for your policy—if you can even get a policy at all. You also may not get down to your target weight as quickly as insurance company guidelines indicate you should, which could lead to higher premiums too. Not to mention the other health problems that could crop up and cause a company to deny you life insurance altogether.
Life insurance is one of those cases in which the early bird gets the worm. “The most bang for your buck is when you get it early,” says Jack Dolan, vice president of public affairs at the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI). “For a woman who is pregnant, getting life insurance early in a pregnancy will tend to serve them better than waiting for later on in the pregnancy.” That’s because, as your pregnancy progresses, your body begins changing and conditions can develop. “It doesn’t mean that life insurance is unavailable as your pregnancy proceeds,” he says, “but as your pregnancy advances, your body begins changing, and as a result it changes the factors that the life insurer is presented with in underwriting.”
Life insurers, regardless of whether you’re pregnant or not, will look at your age, gender, occupation, height, weight, and lifestyle, according to Investopedia’s Guide to Life Insurance. They may also take blood and urine samples and look at your medical records. (Though if you’ve opted into group life insurance through your employer, you may not need the medical exam.)
“Underwriters have certain guidelines to approve individuals for life insurance,” Edward Mandrin, wealth management adviser and a chartered life underwriter at Northwestern Mutual, says. At the best of times, this can be a flawed process. “For example,” he continues, “given an individual’s height, weight should fall within a certain parameter for them to be considered in line with the norm.” But fat is a fraught issue, and BMI isn’t necessarily a comprehensive measure of health. “You can have individuals who may not always fall into a particular category because of their specific body type,” Mandrin says, but “insurance companies have to use the masses to create a guideline for what is acceptable risk.” Even though many perfectly healthy people are outliers.
Luckily, there is good news: Trying to get life insurance during a pandemic like the coronavirus shouldn’t change much about the process, Mandrin says. He is starting to see “expedited underwriting,” meaning “certain face-to-face medical exams may be waived due to the outbreak.”
I started my application for life insurance on March 4, at 15 weeks pregnant—before it became clear that the coronavirus would upend all of our lives for months, or even years, to come. I spent 30 minutes on the phone answering questions about my physical and mental health, what medications I take, whether I smoke or drink, and whether my doctor had told me I have any complications due to my pregnancy. We scheduled an appointment for a nurse to come to my apartment and check my height, my weight, my blood pressure, and to take my blood. At the time I didn’t think twice about it, but now that the coronavirus has descended on New York City—and I may need life insurance more than ever—I’m terrified at the idea of letting a stranger into my home to examine me. The life insurance company keeps calling to reschedule my appointment with the nurse, and I know that every day that goes by means risking a higher premium or not being able to get life insurance at all. But now I’m stuck in this quagmire of needing to potentially expose myself to the virus in order to get a life insurance policy that would protect my family in the event of a worst-case scenario.
The company I thought I'd buy my life insurance from has not offered to waive the medical exam yet, though they did offer to postpone the exam until later this month. But I still don’t feel completely safe welcoming someone into my home. So, for now, I’m shuttering myself inside my apartment, looking into other life insurance companies, hoping I don’t get sick, and kicking myself for not buying life insurance earlier, before the world went into lockdown and no one knew what the future would hold.
Ruthie Ackerman is a writer, writing instructor, and content strategist living in Brooklyn.
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