Q&A: How much liability insurance do you need?

Dear Liz: In a previous answer to a question about liability insurance, you indicated that people should normally have enough insurance to cover their assets. Which assets should be included, as it is my understanding that some assets are exempt from creditors, such as 401(k)s and IRAs? Also, how are future earnings or future annuity payments for retirees taken into account when trying to determine how much liability insurance to carry? Should one essentially cover the present value of their future income for 10 years? Twenty years? Life?

Answer: As indicated in the previous column, there’s as much art as science in determining appropriate liability coverage. Liability insurance pays the tab when you face a lawsuit or similar claims. Some people sleep better at night with high policy limits, while others would rather deploy their money elsewhere.

Liability insurance is relatively inexpensive, so getting a lot of coverage typically won’t break the bank. But you also need to make sure you’re adequately covered for disability and long-term care, which you’re more likely to need than your liability insurance.

You’re correct that workplace retirement plans such as 401(k)s are protected from creditor claims. So are IRAs, up to $1 million. Each state has different rules about other property, but typically a certain amount of home equity is protected as well. In Texas and Florida, this so-called homestead exemption is virtually unlimited. In other states, the amount protected is relatively small. (In California, it can be as small as $25,575, according to legal self-help site Nolo.) Similarly, states are all over the map in how they treat annuities.

Social Security income, by contrast, is safe from creditors except Uncle Sam. The federal government can take a portion of your Social Security check if you’ve defaulted on federal student loans, for example.

Financial advisors typically focus on net worth, rather than incomes, when recommending appropriate levels of liability coverage. If you’re a high earner with few assets, though, you might want to take your future income stream into account. Exactly how much can be a discussion between you and your advisor or insurance agent.

Q&A: How much liability coverage is enough?

Dear Liz: We are looking to get umbrella insurance coverage to increase the personal liability limits on our homeowners and auto policies. Is there a rule of thumb on how much umbrella coverage is appropriate? Enough to cover one’s entire net worth? Or a portion thereof? Granted, no amount of coverage would prevent a lawsuit exceeding that coverage. We have never had a liability claim but are looking for an extra degree of safety and peace of mind. The house (no mortgage) is worth about $2.5 million and we have financial assets of an additional $3 million. The maximum our carrier offers in umbrella coverage is $5 million, with a premium under $1,000 a year.

Answer: Walking the line between prudence and paranoia isn’t easy when you’re trying to predict the risk of being sued.

A report by ACE Private Risk Services noted that most auto and homeowners liability coverage maxes out at $500,000, but 13% of personal injury liability awards and settlements are for $1 million or more.

That means the vast majority of lawsuits result in six-figure payouts or less, but a spectacular few can cost more.

Insurance experts say trial attorneys typically settle for a liability policy’s limits. There are exceptions, though, particularly if the person being sued has substantial assets and income but not a lot of coverage.

One rule of thumb is to get liability coverage at least equal to your net worth, with a minimum of $1 million. A $5-million policy in your case would not be overkill, but you should discuss your situation with an experienced insurance agent to get a better assessment of your risk and options.

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