Don’t Overlook Life-Insurance Conversion Notice Obligations

Employer, Not Insurer, Found Liable for Payment of Life Insurance Benefit

A court ruling earlier this month highlights the importance for employers of reviewing internal policies and procedures regarding the communication of post-employment life insurance rights. In Erwood v. WellStar Health Systems, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled that an employer owes more than $750,000 to the widow of a deceased former employee.

In this case, an employee terminated employment at the end of his FMLA period and died of a terminal illness just over nine months later. Although the former employee and his spouse believed he would continue to be covered under a life insurance policy following the end of his employment, the group policy coverage lapsed and was not continued because the company’s benefits representative did not properly explain the post-employment individual policy conversion right.

Although the availability of a conversion right was mentioned in a summary plan description, the court found that the employer did not satisfy its disclosure obligations to the employee because no specific form, deadline, or other essential information about the conversion right was ever mentioned or provided, even when the employee and his spouse had reached out with questions and attended an in-person meeting. Instead, the representative simply provided multiple assurances during the employee’s FMLA leave period that all benefit coverages would “remain the same.”

The court held that the failure to provide the employee with specific conversion right election information amounted to a breach of the fiduciary obligation imposed by ERISA to convey complete and accurate information material to the beneficiary’s circumstances. The court also found that an ERISA fiduciary may not, in the performance of its duties, materially mislead those to whom the duties of loyalty and prudence are owed. That duty not only includes the affirmative duty to inform, but also the duty to inform when the fiduciary knows that silence might be harmful to the beneficiary. The court found that the employer had breached these fiduciary obligations in its failure to provide the required conversion notice, and, as a result, found that such breaches amounted to a material misrepresentation by the employer resulting in harm to the spouse as beneficiary.

Unfortunately, the company’s benefit representative was unaware of the company’s communication and fiduciary obligations to provide notice to the employee of the conversion right and wrongly assumed that such notice would be provided by the life insurance carrier itself. Because the deceased employee and his spouse had relied on the company’s communications to their detriment, the judge used the equitable remedy provisions of ERISA to award the widow the full amount of the life insurance benefit, $750,000 (plus interest), she would have received under the policy, had the life insurance benefit continued from the date on which employment ended.

Compare and Contrast with COBRA

Most employers are quite familiar with the obligation to provide a notice of COBRA or state continuation coverage to group health plan participants who cease to be eligible for the workplace group health insurance plan. The process of providing continuation coverage notices has become routine, and indeed, is often handled by the plan’s group health insurance carrier.

However, the opposite is true of group life insurance policies. Not only are some employers less aware that group life insurance coverage applies only to active employees, the contractual language of group policies typically requires the employer (rather than the insurer) to provide the conversion right notices when employment ends.

The court’s decision in Erwood highlights the importance of periodically reviewing internal post-employment benefits right notice obligations and of understanding who exactly has those obligations. This is particularly important in light of the fact that employers may change carriers over time, and that the details of conversion notice requirements may vary from carrier to carrier.

When the same insurer provides both long-term disability and life insurance, it may be that the insurer will be aware of an employee terminating employment on account of disability. In such case, it is possible that an insurer will be willing to assist in making sure that an employee receives a life-insurance conversion notice. It is more common, however, that the onus for providing notice of conversion rights rests solely on the employer, and not the carrier. The Erwood decision makes that reality clear for employers.

Because beneficiaries often become aware that eligibility or conversion information was inaccurate or incomplete (or that premiums have lapsed) only after the plan participant has passed away, life insurance errors of this kind are prime candidates for the application of an (often expensive) equitable remedy under ERISA that makes the beneficiary whole.

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