Shelf Life: An Idea to Die For
A fascination for the odd and the obscure drives my writing. I’m always on the lookout for strange but real occurrences that would make for a really interesting story. When I discovered the unusual business world of viatical settlements, lightning struck and I knew I had a novel.
So what are viatical settlements and what makes them so special? In a sense, they’re a reverse insurance arrangement. If you own a life insurance policy and you want to cash it in, you go to a viatical settlement agent who will find someone to buy it. The buyer will give you pennies on the dollar for your policy and take over the monthly dues on your life insurance. In return, they will become the beneficiary when you die. The closer you are to the grave, the bigger the payout.
Viatical settlements were aimed at the elderly and the terminally ill to cover final expenses and make their last days comfortable, but the industry really took off in the late 80’s and 90’s when HMOs weren’t covering AIDS and HIV patients. Patients needed money for treatment and viatical settlements provided the perfect vehicle for that. The industry hit the skids in the late 90’s when breakthroughs in AIDS drugs extended life expectancies and the payout times increased.
I saw the beauty and the beast in this arrangement. Viaticals give people a second shot at life, or at least a comfortable end, allowing them to live out their life worry free. On the other hand, viatical settlements are a truly ghoulish proposal. Some companies ran late-night advertisements telling people how they could make money quick. See a 25% return on your money in 12 months or less. To the investor, that sounds great. But to achieve that return, someone has to die. There is no way to ignore the fact that the policy buyer is profiteering off the dead.
I came across viatical settlements on a TV news magazine show. The feature was well done. The story covered all the parties involved in one of these arrangements. They interviewed a person with HIV who had sold their life insurance as well as a retired couple who had purchased several policies through a middleman who arranged the sales. It was great to see a person who’d had one foot over the threshold of death’s door come back from the brink after selling his policy. It was shocking watching the retired couple that had sunk their retirement fund into viatical settlements. They displayed vehement disgust for the people they’d paid good money to who hadn’t had the good graces to die as predicted.
The news clip ended with a kicker and it was that kicker that really grabbed my attention. The middleman is supposed to keep the identities of the buyer and seller confidential. The man with HIV who’d sold his life insurance produced a birthday card. It had arrived unsigned on his last birthday. The message was simple and to the point. It said: Why aren’t you dead yet?
I couldn’t let this go. There was a book here. Viatical settlements presented a very interesting concept. Criminals aren’t the only ones with a price on their heads. Everyone is worth more dead than alive, thanks to their life insurance. And what if the beneficiaries can’t afford to wait to inherit? A murder would lead someone to the beneficiary, but an accidental death wouldn’t.
For Accidents Waiting to Happen
, I stretched the rules concerning viatical settlements a bit to create a cat and mouse thriller. I made rules surrounding viaticals much more far ranging. Essentially, anyone could qualify. In the book, Josh Michaels takes a bribe to pay for his newborn child’s medical expenses. His secretary blackmails him when she learns of the bribe. To pay her off, Josh sells his life insurance policy. Years later, when the bribe, the blackmail and the policy sale are long forgotten, he’s driving home when he’s forced off the road by another vehicle into a river. Instead of helping Josh, the driver gives him the thumbs-down gesture and drives off. Josh survives the accident and learns he’s not the only having accidents. The one thing these people have in common is that they’ve all made a viatical settlement in their past.
Usually, truth is stranger than fiction, and I love that, but if I can get a hold of it, I’ll make that fiction a little stranger.