We've all heard horror stories about men and women who've lost their spouses, then learned that their better half was so deep in debt, those they've left behind are left out in the cold.
We like to think those cases are extreme, but in fact, they happen every day -- even in cases where a spouse didn't owe anyone a penny. As proof, Detroit News points to a recent study carried out by the Consumer Federation of America, which found that widows saw their auto insurance climb an average of 14 percent after their spouses' death. In some cases, premiums soared by more than 200 percent.
METHODOLOGY & FINDINGS
To conduct its study, CFA gathered auto insurance quotes for the same hypothetical driver: a 30-year-old woman with a high school diploma and full-time job who'd been driving since 16 and had no accidents or moving violations on her record. Quotes were for a 2005 Honda Civic, which the imaginary driver owned outright. Quotes were gathered from America's top six auto insurers -- GEICO, Farmers, Liberty, Nationwide, Progressive, and State Farm -- in ten major U.S. cities.
The good news is, State Farm rates remained consistent no matter the marital status of the applicant. Single, divorced, married, and widowed women were all assessed the same premium, as were those who were separated, single with children, and committed to a domestic partner.
Nationwide also tended to perform well, with a difference of about three percent between married and widowed applicants. That said, those who were divorced, separated, or single saw their Nationwide rates rise higher.
The remaining four insurers -- GEICO, Farmers, Liberty, and Progressive -- performed pretty poorly. Widows insured through Liberty saw rates rise an average of eight percent, those with Progressive paid 19 percent more, and those with Farmers saw their policies climb around 22 percent per year.
The worst of the lot was GEICO, where widows paid an average of 29 percent more for auto insurance, and in some cases, as much as 226 percent. A particularly telling example came from Louisville, Kentucky, where the hypothetical married woman paid $650 a year for auto insurance, while her widowed twin was charged $1,302.
The problem is, discriminating against widows isn't just distasteful. It's part of a larger pattern that treats low- and middle-income households unfairly.
CFA says that "Insurer use of marital status in their pricing – along with their use of other non-driving factors researched earlier by CFA, including education, occupation, and credit scores – tends to discriminate against low- and moderate-income Americans." The organization's Robert Hunter goes on to point out that "Most lower-income drivers need a car to meet transportation needs, yet cannot drive legally without purchasing the liability insurance required by all states except New Hampshire."
That's not to say that low- and middle-income women are more likely to be widowed. However, they are more likely to be divorced or separated, and they are also more likely to head up single-parent households. Those factors tend to drive up auto insurance rates, despite the fact that, as CFA notes, there are no publicly available documents to support the assertion that married people make safer drivers.*
CFA plans to share its data with state insurance departments and the Federal Insurance Office, in the hopes of restricting insurers to rate criteria that matters, like a person's actual driving record and the number of years that she's spent behind a wheel.
In the meantime, if your marital status has recently changed, it might be time to revisit your insurance policy -- or maybe find another insurer altogether.
We'll let you know if CFA conducts the same study with a hypothetical male driver in the future.
* From CFA's press release:
"Auto insurers say that married people deserve lower rates than others because they tend to drive more responsibly. They, and their advocates, frequently cite a study released in 2004 by the National Institutes of Health showing that single persons had higher driving injury rates than married persons (G. Whitlock, et al, “Motor Vehicle Injury and Marital Status,” Injury Prevention, 10: 33-36). However, this study, undertaken by several academics, was based on data collected in New Zealand around 1990 involving only 138 injuries, a substantial minority of which involved driving motorcycles. And the difference in injury rates was only about one percentage point." [emphasis ours]