“Dad is in the operating room having emergency open-heart surgery,” said my mother-in-law to my wife on an ordinary Sunday in June 2006. “You have to get out here immediately.” Within a few hours, we were on a flight from New York to Wisconsin, where a seemingly healthy 54-year-old was fighting for his life.
Upon landing, we learned that my father-in-law, John M. Jones, who at the time was president of the Green Bay Packers football team, had survived the type of aortic dissection that kills 90 percent of its victims.
John had been a National Football League executive for 20 years, including nine with the Packers. On May 30, 2006, he was named president of the team. A few days later, he completed Milwaukee’s Miller Lite Ride for the Arts, a 75-mile bicycle race, in less than five hours, his personal record. One week after the race, a previously undetected congenital heart defect caused his aortic dissection. His excellent physical condition likely contributed to his improbable survival.
John tried to return to his executive duties after a few months of convalescence, but it was a struggle for him to make it through each day. During the five-hour surgery he had suffered a stroke that damaged his short-term memory. Permanent memory deficits will plague him for the rest of his life. Further, like many with heart trouble, he suffers from fatigue that requires periodic rest throughout the day. He could no longer function as a high-level executive, and he retired from the Packers in July 2007.
Shortly after leaving the Packers organization, John filed a long-term disability claim, and it was approved. Fortunately, he has the most comprehensive disability insurance, known as “own occupation coverage.” This coverage, which we recommend for professionals and executives, entitles the owner to benefits if illness or injury prevents the person from continuing his or her current occupation. Imagine, for example, a brain surgeon who loses an arm in an automobile accident. Although he would be able to teach in a medical school, he could no longer perform surgery. Own occupation disability coverage would provide benefits in such a case.
The other two main types of disability insurance are “any occupation” and “modified any occupation” coverage. Policies that use an “any occupation” definition of disability do not provide benefits unless the insured is “unable to perform the duties pertaining to any gainful occupation.” Under this definition, a former tennis instructor who needed a wheelchair would not qualify for benefits, because she could still work as a telemarketer. “Modified any occupation” plans are somewhat more generous. Such plans consider a person to be disabled if he or she cannot work in any capacity for which he or she is reasonably suited on the basis of education, training, experience and sometimes, prior economic status. The surgeon in the previous example would not be able to collect benefits with this sort of plan, since his experience makes him well-qualified to teach. On the other hand, if he suffered a stroke that caused serious mental impairment, rendering him incapable of working in any medical field, he would most likely be able to collect benefits.
Sufficient disability coverage often takes a back seat to life insurance for several reasons. The simplest reason is that consumers acknowledge that death is inevitable, while long-term disability is not. Furthermore, disability insurance premiums are substantially higher than life insurance premiums for the same level of potential coverage. Insurers are more likely to receive claims on disability policies for younger adults, and those claims are more likely to involve controversy. Not many people want to get paid to die, but a considerable number are happy to be paid not to work.
The Disability Insurance Resource Center concludes that a 42-year-old is three times more likely to have a long-term disability than to die before reaching age 65. Social Security Administration studies show that a 20-year-old worker has a 30 percent chance of becoming disabled before reaching retirement age. This is why, for many wage earners, disability coverage may be more important than life insurance, even though disability coverage is more often overlooked.
In John’s case, he had sufficient life insurance but insufficient disability coverage to replace his income. His benefits — a customary amount for many executives — are a small fraction of his previous salary. Typically, group policies provide a monthly benefit of the lesser of 45 percent to 60 percent of monthly earnings or $10,000. While $10,000 per month is a nice sum, with bonuses and long-term incentive compensation, many executives earn significantly more. Despite this gap, executives often enroll in their employers’ group plans and rarely consider supplemental plans.
Supplemental plans are usually individual policies. Though there are exceptions, most will provide coverage until the insured has total coverage of up to $25,000 per month or $300,000 per year.
When John was making an executive salary, the Joneses, who lived a relatively modest lifestyle, rarely focused on their monthly expenses. Like many executive families, they spent what they spent, saving an appropriate amount along the way.
The Joneses had retirement dreams that were reasonable for an executive’s family. They planned to spend six months a year in Wisconsin, several weeks exploring new and familiar destinations, and the rest of the year visiting their children in the Northeast. That dream is no longer possible.
Facing a reduced income forced the Joneses to recalibrate their spending. A financial planner in the family (yours truly) ran a cash flow projection for them, mapping out their expected income and expenses for the rest of their lives. The result: Based on reasonable assumptions for life expectancy and rates of return for their investment portfolio, the Joneses can afford a comfortable, though not extravagant, retirement.
Though John has ongoing difficulty with short-term memory and requires frequent rest, he hasn’t let that stop him from finding a new source of fulfillment in his life. Using his own experiences, he developed a presentation called Bulletproof: The Men’s Healthcare Myth, which he delivers to community and executive audiences. He encourages adults, especially men, to visit their physicians regularly, and he notes that having a close relationship with his personal physicians helped save his life. It was, in fact, John’s personal doctors who ordered additional hospital tests that revealed the dissecting aorta on that fateful Sunday in June.
John’s inspirational presentation has been well-received. He does not accept an honorarium or other compensation for giving the speech; making money is not his goal. The Bulletproof lecture has given John a new mission in life. He is fueled by letters, emails and other feedback he receives from audience members who report visiting their physicians after hearing John speak. Recently, John learned of a man who, following the Bulletproof presentation, visited his cardiologist and was found to have clogged arteries. An immediate quadruple bypass may have saved the man’s life.
John’s story also might encourage many to reevaluate their disability insurance coverage. It should. But the most important message is to grasp that life’s journey may not always turn out the way we expect. When a career, a financial circumstance or a family situation suddenly changes, it can be extraordinarily difficult to cope. Finding new sources of fulfillment is even harder. But that is exactly what John Jones has done, and his family could not be prouder.
To read more about John Jones and his Bulletproof presentation, please visit www.bulletproofmyth.com.