“Why Are You Greasing the Stairs, Honey?”
Insurance expert Steven Weisbart provides some answers
At the moment toward the middle of a Forensic Files episode when Peter Thomas mentions the life insurance policy the suspected spouse took out on the deceased, I wonder…
Can your husband or wife just a) take out a policy on you without your knowledge or permission and then b) collect a six- or seven-figure jackpot after “accidentally” dropping a powered-on hair dryer into your bathwater?
The answers, according to Steven Weisbart, chief economist at the Insurance Information Institute in New York, are a) yes and b) yes, but it’s highly improbable.
Family affair. Your spouse doesn’t have to inform you about the policy, but “the law in every U.S. state says that the person taking out the life insurance policy must demonstrate an ‘insurable interest’ in the other person,” says Weisbart. “It means the person would suffer either a financial or personal loss if the other person dies.”
The insurable-interest conduit applies only to your spouse or other members of your immediate nuclear family, says Weisbart. So, that should prevent a greedy second cousin or double-crossing best friend from stealthily taking out a policy on you, injecting you with horse tranquilizer, and heading to Cabo San Lucas.
If your spouse — or parent or child — dreams up a similar plan, a policy’s high death-benefit may serve as something of a safeguard in the system. “If someone is applying for a $10 million policy on your life, the insurance company will want to know how healthy you are first,” Weisbart says. “So you’ll be aware of a policy because the insurance company will want to arrange a physical exam.”
Not so fast. Of course, a really elaborate murder-for-insurance-money scheme could mean finding an imposter to take the exam, as crooked undertaker E. Lee White (Forensic Files “Undertaken”) did in his killing of handyman Frankie Pullian for a $980,000 payout back in 1980.
Even if your ill-intentioned spouse successfully takes that tack, however, your manner of death could trigger a police investigation and subsequent denial of an insurance payout.
Craig Rabinowitz (Forensic Files “Summer Obsession”), for example, tried to collect $1.5 million in insurance money after drowning his wife, Stephanie Rabinowitz, in a bathtub in 1997, but the coroner denied his request to have her buried by the next sundown — and uncovered enough evidence to compel Rabinowitz to confess to the crime. (Likewise, E. Lee White was caught because of suspicious circumstances surrounding Frankie Pullian’s death.)
Killing for a pittance. So, what happens to all that insurance money once law enforcement has uncovered the wrongdoing? I always assumed companies alerted authorities to suspicious deaths in the hopes of avoiding payouts. That’s not necessarily true, according to Weisbart. “The company could give the money to a court and let it decide who gets it,” he says. “It could end up going to your estate or to a different relative.”
Now, as at least one Forensic Files episode has pointed out, and Weisbart confirmed, if your spouse takes out a small enough policy, the insurance company will most likely pay off without any investigation. But that plan doesn’t always work. Vicki Gillette (Forensic Files “Strong Impressions”) was murdered by her husband for just $27,000 in 1984, but he remarried 11 days later — raising suspicions and ultimately landing him in jail.
The takeaway from all this? Make sure to marry and befriend people who enjoy watching Forensic Files as much as you do — they will know better than to chase riches via an insurance policy and a homicide. — RR
Next: Former federal prosecutor Steve Parker discusses the Bruce brothers’ murder of Danny Vine and Della Thornton.