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Though all contracts share fundamental concepts and basic elements, insurance contracts typically possess a number of characteristics not widely found in other types of contractual agreements. The most common of these features are listed here:
If one party to a contract might receive considerably more in value than he or she gives up under the terms of the agreement, the contract is said to be aleatory. Insurance contracts are of this type because, depending upon chance or any number of uncertain outcomes, the insured (or his or her beneficiaries) may receive substantially more in claim proceeds than was paid to the insurance company in premium dollars. On the other hand, the insurer could ultimately receive significantly more dollars than the insured party if a claim is never filed.
In a contract of adhesion, one party draws up the contract in its entirety and presents it to the other party on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis; the receiving party does not have the option of negotiating, revising, or deleting any part or provision of the document. Insurance contracts are of this type, because the insurer writes the contract and the insured either ‘adheres’ to it or is denied coverage. In a court of law, when legal determinations must be made because of ambiguity in a contract of adhesion, the court will render its interpretation against the party that wrote the contract. Typically, the court will grant any reasonable expectation on the part of the insured (or his or her beneficiaries) arising from an insurer-prepared contract.
Utmost Good Faith
Although all contracts ideally should be executed in good faith, insurance contracts are held to an even higher standard, requiring the utmost of this quality between the parties. Due to the nature of an insurance agreement, each party needs – and is legally entitled – to rely upon the representations and declarations of the other. Each party must have a reasonable expectation that the other party is not attempting to defraud, mislead, or conceal information and is indeed conducting themselves in good faith. In a contract of utmost good faith, each party has a duty to reveal all material information (that is, information that would likely influence a party’s decision to either enter into or decline the contract), and if any such data is not disclosed, the other party will usually have the right to void the agreement.
An executory contract is one in which the covenants of one or more parties to the contract remain partially or completely unfulfilled. Insurance contracts necessarily fall under this strict definition; of course, it’s stated in the insurance and agreement that the insurer will only perform its obligation after certain events take place (in other words, losses occur).
A contract may either be bilateral or unilateral. In a bilateral contract, each party exchanges a promise for a promise. However, in a unilateral contract, the promise of one party is exchanged for a specific act of the other party. Insurance contracts are unilateral; the insured performs the act of paying the policy premium, and the insurer promises to reimburse the insured for any covered losses that may occur. It must be noted that once the insured has paid the policy premium, nothing else is required on his or her part; no other promises of performance were made. Only the insurer has covenanted any further action, and only the insurer can be held liable for breach of contract.
A condition is a provision of a contract which limits the rights provided by the contract. In addition to being executory, aleatory, adhesive, and of the utmost good faith, insurance contracts are also conditional. Even when a loss is suffered, certain conditions must be met before the contract can be legally enforced. For example, the insured individual or beneficiary must satisfy the condition of submitting to the insurance company sufficient proof of loss, or prove that he or she has an insurable interest in the person insured.
There are two basic types of conditions: conditions precedent and conditions subsequent. A condition precedent is any event or act that must take place or be performed before the contractual right will be granted. For instance, before an insured individual can collect medical benefits, he or she must become sick or injured. Further, before a beneficiary will be paid a death benefit, the insured must actually become deceased. A condition subsequent is an event or act that serves to cancel a contractual right. A suicide clause is an example of such a condition. Typical suicide clauses cancel the right of payment of the death benefit if the insured individual takes his or her own life within two years of a life insurance policy’s effective date.
Insurance contracts are usually personal agreements between the insurance company and the insured individual, and are not transferable to another person without the insurer’s consent. (Life insurance and some maritime insurance policies are notable exceptions to this standard.) As an illustration, if the owner of a car sells the vehicle and no provision is made for the buyer to continue the existing car insurance (which, in actuality, would simply be the writing of the new policy), then coverage will cease with the transfer of title to the new owner.
Warranties and Representations
A warranty is a statement that is considered guaranteed to be true and, once declared, becomes an actual part of the contract. Typically, a breach of warranty provides sufficient grounds for the contract to be voided. Conversely, a representation is a statement that is believed to be true to the best of the other party’s knowledge. In order to void a contract based on a misrepresentation, a party must prove that the information misrepresented is indeed material to the agreement. According to the laws of most states and in most circumstances, the responses that a person gives on an insurance application are considered to be a representations, and not warranties.
As an example, consider an individual seeking life insurance coverage. He or she would routinely be required to complete an application, on which the applicant’s sex and age would be requested. The accuracy of this information is necessary for the insurer to correctly ascertain its risk and determine the policy premium. If the applicant gives these responses incorrectly, they would likely be deemed (in the absence of outright fraud) as misrepresentations, and could possibly be used by the insurance company as grounds for voiding the policy.
There is, however, a difference between the representation (or misrepresentation) of a fact and the expression of an opinion. Take, for instance, a common insurance application question such as, “To the best of your knowledge, do you now believe yourself to be in good health?” An applicant answering ‘yes’ while knowing that he or she suffers from a particular condition would be guilty of misrepresenting an actual fact. However, if the applicant had no symptoms of any kind that would be recognizable to an average person and no doctor’s opinion to the contrary, he or she would simply be stating an opinion and not making a misrepresentation.
Misrepresentations and Concealments
A misrepresentation is a statement, whether written or oral, that is false. Generally speaking, in order for an insurance company to void a contract because of misrepresented information, the information in question must be material to the decision to extend coverage.
Concealment, on the other hand, is the failure to disclose information that one clearly knows about. To void a contract on the grounds of concealment, the insurer typically must prove that the applicant willfully and intentionally concealed information that was of a material nature.
Fraud is the intentional attempt to persuade, deceive, or trick someone in an effort to gain something of value. Although misrepresentations or concealments may be used to perpetrate fraud, by no means are all misrepresentations and concealments acts of fraud. For instance, if an insurance applicant intentionally lies in order to obtain coverage or make a false claim, it could very well be grounds for the charge of fraud. However, if an applicant misrepresents some piece of information with no intent for gain (such as, for example, failing to disclose a medical treatment that the applicant is personally embarrassed to discuss), then no fraud has occurred.
Impersonation (False pretenses)
When one person assumes the identity of another for the purpose of committing a fraud, that person is guilty of the offense of impersonation (also known as false pretenses). For instance, an individual that would likely be turned down for insurance coverage due to questionable health might request a friend to stand in for him (or her) in order to complete a physical examination.
Parol (or Oral) evidence rule
This principle limits the effects that oral statements made before a contract’s execution can have on the contract. The assumption here is that any oral agreements made before the contract was written were automatically incorporated into the drafting of the contract. Once the contract is executed, any prior oral statements will therefore not be allowed in a court of law to alter or counter the contract.