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Whose life insurance policy is it, anyway?

When George Bailey is standing on the bridge, despairing that he has let his family down, he thinks of Mr. Potter's taunt: "You're worth more dead than alive." Potter, of course, has set the scene for the rest of the movie, as George learns his life lesson. "It's a Wonderful Life" may be the first movie any of us remember that prominently features a life insurance policy.

As we get older and a little more cynical, of course, we think of "Double Indemnity" when someone mentions life insurance. But deceit and murder are not our focus today. Despair and suicide are. And we aren't talking about a bridge crossing a river at the edge of Bedford Falls; we are talking about a room in a private home in Tiburon, California.

For the last 11 days, the world has been mourning the death of actor/comedian/cultural icon Robin Williams. Williams took his own life, and the media has struggled to remain respectful while trying to figure out why Williams felt he had no other option. Some reporters have looked back and found stories about Williams' debt woes -- spousal support for his two ex-wives cost him a fortune, for example, and he was not commanding the same salaries that he had as a younger man. Add debt to substance abuse issues, and you have a recipe for deep depression.

Being in the estate planning business, of course, our thoughts wandered to what arrangements he had made to take care of his family. And we could not get the image of George Bailey, standing on the bridge with the insurance policy in his hands, out of our mind. We wondered if Williams had had a similar moment of confusion and despair, but with no Clarence (Angel Second Class) to save him.

The problem is that life insurance policies may not pay if the insured commits suicide.

We'll explain more in our next post.

Source: Time, "How Life Insurance Policies Deal with Suicide," John Dorfman, Aug. 15, 2014

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