Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Insurance Standardization Sells: But Who’s Buying?

Even though we – the policyholder – are eternally at an economic disadvantage, are existing standardized insurance policies just a mere triumph of clever marketing?

By: Ringo Bones

For all intents and purposes, an insurance agreement is normally just a contract of adhesion. That is, one that’s not open to individual negotiations. Policy forms are often standardized – except for the opportunity of selection among various basic forms and endorsements, the buyer – i.e. you and me – in most instances has only the choice of taking insurance on the insurer’s terms or declining it altogether.

Ever since the start of the modern insurance industry, the average insurance buyer has always been at a bargaining disadvantage due to his or her limited range of choice, his or her inferior economic position and his or her inferior understanding of insurance in comparison to the insurance provider. Ordinary freedom-of-contract principles have, therefore, been qualified in ways favourable to the insured. For example, in cases of ambiguity, which the courts have been assiduous in finding, the contract is usually interpreted against the insurer.

Standardization of insurance contracts was accomplished mainly by the initiative of the insurers, singly or in cooperation. Such private initiative is still a very important factor, but the methods by which standardization is now achieved include legislative adoption of policy provisions under legislative authorization, administrative approval or disapproval of forms presented by insurers, and legislative or administrative disapproval of particular policy provisions.

Standardization cuts down the range of choice of the individual buyer of insurance, but has compensating benefits. It provides an approximation of the insurance needs of most persons based on accumulated underwriting experience, makes it easier to find an appropriate basis for premiums and – most important of all – makes possible the economy of mass marketing.

Insurers are often held liable for a loss occurring to the insured before his or her receipt of a formal insurance policy. Believe it or not, oral contracts of insurance are valid in most circumstances, though seldom used except in the in the form of an oral binder for a brief period pending preparation of a written policy. A temporary contract that’s good until a permanent policy is issued may also be made in writing. An agent who purports to make a temporary contract, oral or written, but is without power to bind the insurer he or she pretends to represent, is held liable personally as if he or she were the insurer in the event of loss. Another basis on which many courts have imposed liability is unreasonable delay by the insurer in acting on an application.

Customarily, the terms of a life insurance policy make it effective only upon delivery of the policy, unless a binding receipt for temporary insurance has been issued. In some instances, however, delivery is found to have taken place when the policy has reached the hands of another, often the agent, to be held for the insured. This is true despite the fact that the insured has not received it.

So what does this all mean to the average insurance policy holder – i.e. you and me? Given that we are for all intents and purposes at an economic disadvantage, the wide choices available out there by competing insurance providers now places the average consumer at a better economic advantage – even when compared a few years ago due to the wide variety of policies being offered. Some are even seem to be tailor made to what we're looking for while being offered at mass market policy holder prices.

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