Editor’s note: Part two of a three-part series on disability insurance for dentists and students. Read part one, Disability insurance 101: "Own occupation" and "noncancellable and guaranteed renewable"
The first part of this series covered important terms that are “must-haves” for individual disability policies. This article explains when your policy should kick in and how long it should pay, as well as important riders or features available to enhance how your policy can shore up your protection (Note: Riders typically cost extra. Ask your broker for more details.)
The first step for dentists or dental students when buying a disability policy is to determine a monthly benefit, or base policy. This is the amount of money you’ll be paid if you go on claim. At the same time when you are first buying your first policy, you can choose when you’d receive your first benefit checks should you go on claim, and just how long it could potentially pay out. You can also improve the base plan with add-ons, or riders.
Elimination period: This is the length of time you need to wait to start collecting benefits in the event of a claim. You can choose anywhere from 30 days up to, in some cases, two years. We typically recommend 90 days, but your circumstances may warrant a different elimination period. A note: the sooner your claim would pay, the more expensive the plan will be.
Benefit period: This is how long a claim might pay. This can range from two years up to age 70. We typically recommend at least to age 65, but again, individual circumstances might affect this recommendation. The longer the potential claim, the more expensive the plan.
COLA, or cost of living adjustment (inflation protection): This rider protects the purchasing power of your benefit. What $10,000 buys in 2025 will be different in 2045, because of the effects of inflation. If you’re purchasing a policy and you are under 50 years old, you should consider including inflation protection on your plan.
Here’s a quick scenario: you purchased a $10K monthly benefit and then—boom!—you get hurt. The good news is if you have a 3% compound inflation protection rider on your plan, at the yearly anniversary of your claim, you will receive a “bump” in your benefits. If your inflation rider is based on compounding, that’s even better news: the following year’s bump will start at the increased rate.
Including an inflation protection rider on your policy can make a difference of thousands of dollars on your monthly benefit. This is a very good rider to include, especially for younger buyers.
Residual/partial: Some injuries are subtle. Perhaps your income doesn’t just immediately stop due to the catastrophic and easy-to-picture car accident, but instead, it’s gradual and chronic. If your policy includes a “residual” rider, then it is possible to claim a pro-rated benefit based on a percentage of lost income.
2023: You buy a $10,000 monthly benefit disability insurance policy from an insurance broker.
2026: You sustain an injury that doesn’t knock you out of dentistry but makes you slower or less effective. Your income diminished from $300,000 to $150,000, based on the medical condition.
If you have the residual rider, then the carrier will send you claim checks for 50% of the value if your claim is approved based on this example.
Buy more coverage later with no medical questions (various carriers have their own name for this concept): You will qualify for the first policy you buy in two ways: medically and financially.
Medically, the company will either ask you to complete a medical history questionnaire on your own or with a health-care professional. (During the pandemic, many companies waived the traditional in-person nurse’s visit for an online medical questionnaire for many people applying for coverage. This seems to be continuing in the industry. So that’s at least one silver lining to the pandemic.) This is how they determine cost and policy provisions, and sometimes even exclusions.
Financially, carriers will typically only let you protect about 60% of your income. But in some professions, they will let you buy a certain limit up front at the beginning of your career with no proof of income. This is considered a professional starter kit, if you will. Dentistry is one of those professions. For a general dentist, many carriers offer $5000 right out of dental school with no financial documentation required. Eventually, when you want to get more than this amount, they might ask for pay stubs, tax returns, or employment contracts.
With this future increase option, you can increase the policy you bought initially benefits without answering any new medical questions. This means that the policy you get at the age of 27 with no exclusions and all the riders you would want can be increased to a benefit that more meaningfully matches your current income.
2023: You buy a $4000 monthly benefit disability policy from an insurance broker with an increase rider included. (Perhaps you are about to graduate from dental school in a few months.)
2024: You decide you’d like to increase your benefit to $8000/month because you are now earning a typical first-year dentist salary and $4000 doesn’t seem like it would be enough to manage your bills if you were to file a claim. You work with your broker to demonstrate your new income patterns, but because you included this rider, there are no medical questions whatsoever. This is a relief because a few months earlier, you went in to have a mole looked at and you learned you had a malignancy on your skin. (This could have prevented you from getting any additional at all, had you not included this rider.)
A word about exclusions: An exclusion on a disability insurance policy means that the carrier will pay out claims on everything you might imagine, except a named body part or medical condition that could cause a potential future claim. While this seems unfavorable, and it certainly is best to get a policy that has no exclusions, this allows carriers to write policies they would have had to otherwise decline issuing at all in the first place. Your broker should work hard to ensure any exclusions are as specific as possible and, if possible, reviewable in the future.
Student loan payments: Some carriers allow you to include a rider that would pay an extra amount, above and beyond the base benefit, directly to your student loan lenders. This rider is important when dental students are buying their first contract.
As with any loans, we recommend you check the fine print to see if any forgiveness provisions are included when it comes to death or disability.
When purchasing your first policy, educate yourself about your options; not all carriers have the same quality base plan. There are also many nuances to the riders that your broker can go over with you. Design options include:
- How much it pays
- How soon it kicks in
- How long it pays
- Which riders you might want to include
Often, the least expensive plans are of the least value and may not do what you need them to in the event of a claim. So buyer beware, buyer be educated, and most important, buyer be insured.
The next and final installment will discuss practice ownership and policies to consider when buying your first practice.