Prof­it­ing o≠ young lives

States need to set lim­its on the amount of life in­surance that can be taken out on chil­dren.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - ED­I­TO­RI­ALS

THE IN­SURANCE spe­cial­ist who sold Joaquin S. Rams a $444,083 life in­surance pol­icy on his then-in­fant son re­cently re­called for us some of the cir­cum­stances of the trans­ac­tion: How he con­tacted Mr. Rams by phone af­ter Mr. Rams re­sponded to an ad. About their ini­tial con­ver­sa­tion, in which Mr. Rams boasted about be­ing a high-level gov­ern­ment em­ployee and also an aspir­ing mu­si­cian who had been on the “Voice” and was about to go on tour with Jay Z. How he did a Google search but found “ab­so­lutely noth­ing.” And how he sold the pol­icy any­way be­cause it was re­ally none of his busi­ness to raise sus­pi­cions. “I was a sales­man,” John Dono­van ex­plained, “sell­ing a prod­uct for a com­mis­sion.”

That a 15-month-old child ended up pay­ing with his life — killed by his fa­ther who wanted to cash in on this and two other poli­cies — should give pause to an in­dus­try that sees ju­ve­nile life in­surance as a means to easy profit. Ob­tain­ing life in­surance on a child, ac­cord­ing to in­surance ex­perts, takes less ef­fort than get­ting a pol­icy on an adult, with fewer checks that might re­veal pos­si­ble fraud or bad in­tent.

MassMu­tual, the fi­nan­cial group that is­sued the $444,083 pol­icy, has de­clined to dis­cuss the par­tic­u­lars of this case with us. Af­ter Mr. Rams was con­victed in April of cap­i­tal mur­der and in­surance fraud for the 2012 death of Prince McLeod Rams, a spokesman emailed a state­ment: “First and fore­most, this is a hor­rific tragedy and we are pleased that jus­tice has been served. MassMu­tual con­tin­ues to ad­here to rig­or­ous stan­dards and prac­tices for both the re­view and ap­proval on all poli­cies we un­der­write and is­sue.”

Mr. Dono­van, an in­de­pen­dent bro­ker un­der con­tract with MassMu­tual in 2011, said the pol­icy was the largest he had ever writ­ten on a child in his ca­reer, so one might ex­pect a fair de­gree of scru­tiny from the un­der­writ­ers at MassMu­tual. Not only did they fail to dis­cover that Mr. Rams lied about his fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion and about Prince’s mother be­ing dead (she wasn’t), but also they did not de­tect that he had al­ready ap­plied for a $30,000 pol­icy with an­other com­pany. Sev­eral months later, a third com­pany is­sued a pol­icy for $50,000. So much for the in­dus­try’s vaunted re­view by third-party ad­min­is­tra­tors.

Prince’s mother, Hera McLeod, said she had been wor­ried about her ex-boyfriend tak­ing out in­surance on the child — their cus­tody fight and her bid to prevent un­su­per­vised vis­its were marked by al­le­ga­tions that Mr. Rams had pre­vi­ously killed the mother of his older son and his mother for in­surance pur­poses — but was stymied in get­ting in­for­ma­tion. She and Prince’s grand­mother con­tacted sev­eral in­surance com­pa­nies and were told that the only way they could ob­tain in­for­ma­tion was if Prince were dead and a pol­icy was paid out to a ben­e­fi­ciary.

There should be, Ms. McLeod ar­gues, a na­tional registry that would al­low peo­ple to find out if in­surance poli­cies have been taken out on them or their loved ones. This would be a help­ful tool for law en­force­ment and in­surance agents. And other safe­guards should be put in place, too. In­stead of al­low­ing com­pa­nies to set their own rules, states need to es­tab­lish stan­dards (as Wash­ing­ton state has done) or set lim­its on the amount of in­surance that can be taken out on a child’s life (as is the case in New York).

Data on how many mur­ders are mo­ti­vated by life in­surance is spotty, and ad­vo­cates for the in­dus­try may be right that cases like Prince’s are the ter­ri­ble ex­cep­tion and not the norm. But do your own Google search and you’ll come across heart­break­ing cases such as 7-week-old Tara Ab­del­haq suf­fo­cated by her mother in 1995 to col­lect $200,000 or the three chil­dren of Deb­o­rah and Ti­mothy Ni­cholls left in a burn­ing house in 2003 for $10,000 on each child. What won’t show up are in­stances in which a killer might have got­ten away with the crime — and that is even more rea­son for bet­ter safe­guards.

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