HomeDisability InsuranceQuick Guide to Disability Insurance For Dentists: Take a Proactive Approach

Quick Guide to Disability Insurance For Dentists: Take a Proactive Approach

When was the last time you reviewed your long-term disability insurance coverage? If you’re like most dental professionals, it’s been a while—and there’s a good chance you’ve outgrown your LTD coverage. That’s why we’re encouraging dentists to review their current policies and take a proactive approach to disability planning.

Why Dentists Need Good, Up-to-Date Disability Insurance Policies

Dentists Face a High Likelihood of Disability

You might not think of dentistry as an occupation with a high risk of disability. You might be surprised to learn, however, that according to the American Dental Association (ADA), roughly 1 in 4 dental professionals will collect disability benefits at some point before retirement.

Dentistry takes a toll on your body. Even if you’re not stooping all day, research shows that a dentist’s static posture, use of hand tools, repetitive motions, stress, and other factors can lead to serious health issues. At least 81% of dentists experience back, neck, shoulder, or arm pain, according to several studies.

Further, because dentists require steady hands and precise movements to care for their patients, an injury or condition that might not qualify as “disabling” in another occupation can definitely keep you from safely practicing dentistry. A quality “own occupation” disability income insurance plan is essential. (More on this below, under “What You Should Look For in a Long-Term Disability Policy.”)

Dentist Income (and Financial Needs) Change Over Time

Although dentists in most areas of the country enjoy good starting salaries, your income can increase quickly as you gain experience, develop new specialties, and attract new patients. Your disability insurance policy will need to grow with it.

If you purchased your current disability insurance policy several years ago—perhaps when you were just out of dental school or before you started a family—the level of coverage you selected might no longer be sufficient for your needs. That’s especially true if your plan did not include any riders that either automatically or optionally increase your disability coverage, such as an automatic increase benefit (AIB) or future increase option (FIO) rider—or adjust your monthly benefit amount based on cost of living (COLA).

Considering that the average student loan debt for dental school graduates is nearly $300,000 as of 2022, new dentists might also consider purchasing a student loan rider to cover student loan payments in the event they become totally disabled. Obviously, this rider won’t be necessary once you’ve paid off your loans. But at that point, you may be looking to increase your coverage, or perhaps add a catastrophic disability rider that pays extra (up to 100% of your pre-disability income) if you become totally disabled at the peak of your career.

Of course, if you’re on the opposite end of your career—no more student loan payments, your kids are grown, your house is paid off, your financial obligations are much lower, and you’re looking to retire and downsize—you may now be paying for more than you need.

Dentists Often Own Their Own Practice

Although group practices and dental service organizations have become more prominent in recent years, a healthy majority of dentists are still independent business owners or co-owners. According to the ADA, nearly 3 out of 4 dentists in private practice in 2021 were practice owners, and roughly half were solo practitioners.

If you own your practice, disability can lead not only to a personal loss of income, but loss of ability to meet payroll, pay rent, or cover other essential business expenses. This means that, in addition to your individual dentist disability insurance, you should consider additional policies such as business overhead expense (BOE) or key person coverage.

What Dentists Should Look for in a Long-Term Disability Policy

Rather than simply relying on an insurance agent (or marketing materials from disability insurance companies), it’s a good idea to carefully read the terms and conditions of your policy (or consult with an experienced disability insurance lawyer).

You can find all your policy’s essential language in the policy itself if you purchased one on your own, or your long-term disability Plan Document and Summary Plan Description (SPD), if your coverage is through your practice. As you review these documents, make sure you understand the following points.

How It Defines “Disability” and “Own Occupation”

You have probably heard that an “own occupation” disability insurance policy is the best option for dentists. With an own occupation rider, you receive your full disability benefit as long as you cannot perform the substantial duties of your specific job at the time you became disabled.

This is in sharp contrast to “any occupation” coverage, which require you to be unable to perform any occupation to which you are “reasonably suited” to receive benefits—even if that job is in a different industry, pays substantially less, is personally unsatisfying, or all of the above.

For these reasons, we strongly recommend anyone working in a high-skill, high-wage occupation like dentistry to purchase own occupation insurance. But even beyond that, it’s important to carefully review the fine print. Not all own occupation plans are created equal. For example:

  • Some plans will transition from an “own occupation” policy to a more rigorous standard after a few years. If your policy eventually converts into an “any occupation” plan, the insurance company might try to terminate your benefit payments at that point.
  • Look for policies that allow you to work in fields outside of dentistry without terminating benefits, and narrowly define your occupation.

Waiting or Elimination Periods

Every long-term disability plan has an elimination or waiting period that must expire before you receive a benefit payment. Policies with longer elimination periods typically have lower premiums, so many young dentists opt for them. However, when you are disabled, a six-month waiting period might be financially impossible to manage.

Ask yourself: how long can you comfortably live without consistent income? If your answer is significantly shorter than your plan’s elimination period, it’s time to update your coverage.

Monthly Benefit Payment and Optional Riders

According to a 2007 survey performed by The McGill Advisory, many dental professionals have inadequate disability insurance. Many purchased a bare-bones policy when they started out and never revisited its terms. Your policy might have met your needs years ago, but you’ve likely outgrown it.

According to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median general dentist in the United States earned $12,920 per month in 2022. Specialists make even more. If your LTD policy only pays you a $5,000 monthly benefit, chances are it will not come close to maintaining your current lifestyle and covering your bills. Make sure that your long-term disability policy will provide you with meaningful financial stability.

One way you can proactively plan for your future is with COLA (cost-of-living) or future insurability riders. A COLA rider will adjust your monthly benefit payments to reflect the rate of inflation. In comparison, a future insurability rider will let you purchase additional coverage without another medical examination. (Future insurability riders are a wise addition to your policy if you’re relatively young and in good health.)

Whether Partial Benefits Are Available

If you purchase a partial disability rider, your policy will pay a partial or residual benefit if you can return to work part-time or in a different role—and for many dentists, those benefits can be critical.

For example, suppose degenerative issues in your hands prevent you from working as a dentist, but you find work as a consultant or at a dental school. If you’re making less than you did as a practicing dentist, your long-term disability policy might make up some of the difference. (Some policies will even pay a full monthly benefit if you cannot perform dentistry, but these are rarer.)

Considering Filing an LTD Claim? Get Organized

If it’s becoming hard to care for your patients due to a health issue, it might be time to file a disability insurance claim.

Unfortunately, dental professionals are often surprised when seemingly legitimate claims get denied. Disability insurance companies have a financial incentive to deny claims—especially those with a high monthly benefit. Compounding the problem, dentists are especially likely to file claims based on symptoms or conditions that are “self-reported” or difficult to prove through objective testing, such as chronic pain or anxiety disorders.

If you want the best chance at a quick approval, in addition to understanding your policy’s terms, you’ll need to get organized. LTD claims require extensive information about your diagnoses, limitations, daily routine, and other factors that might impact your claim.

As you prepare to file for disability insurance benefits, take your time and collect your evidence. You’ll want to compile:

  • Important dates concerning your claim, such as the dates of your diagnoses, significant hospitalization, medical procedures, and when you could no longer work
  • The names and contact information for all your medical providers
  • Copies of your relevant medical records
  • Supporting information from your providers, such as detailed letters about your conditions and capabilities

If you are looking for specific tools and worksheets, Bryant Legal Group offers a free guidebook.

Even better, consult with a respected disability lawyer. An attorney can help you build your case, identify potential stumbling blocks, and guide you through every step of the claim process.

Bryant Legal Group: Trusted by Dental Professionals in Chicago and Beyond

Bryant Legal Group takes a solution-oriented approach to disability insurance law. We guide dentists and other medical professionals through their complex insurance claims, giving them the information and advice they need. We have recovered millions in benefits and compensation for our clients.

To schedule your free consultation with a member of our team, call us at 312-634-6415 or complete our online form.