Nobody’s perfect. That’s why you buy liability insurance: You can avoid financial ruin if you accidentally cause major injuries or property damage to others. Problem is, your insurance isn’t perfect, either. That’s where a personal umbrella insurance policy comes in.
Think of umbrella insurance — sometimes called excess liability insurance — as a failsafe for your savings and other assets. If you’re sued for damages that exceed the liability limits of your car insurance, homeowners insurance or some other coverage types, an umbrella policy helps pay what you owe. In some cases it provides coverage that’s not included in the base insurance policies.
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Who needs umbrella insurance
Umbrella insurance is not required. It’s commonly purchased by people who:
- Own property.
- Have significant savings or other assets.
- Are worried about liability claims against them when they travel outside the U.S.
- Own things that can lead to injury lawsuits such as pools, trampolines and dogs (check with your insurer to make sure your breed is covered).
- Engage in activities that increase your chances of being sued, such as:
- Being a landlord.
- Coaching kids’ sports.
- Serving on the board of a nonprofit.
- Regularly posting reviews of products and businesses.
- Participating in sports where you could easily injure others (skiing, surfing, hunting, etc.).
You can make a case that just about anyone can benefit from umbrella insurance. Why? Because a large lawsuit can wipe out not only your current savings but also what you stand to earn in the future. Even if you don’t have the money to cover a massive settlement now, you could be stuck paying off the debt for years.
How umbrella insurance works
To get a better sense of how umbrella insurance can come in handy, imagine the following scenario:
You run a red light and accidentally T-bone another car. There is significant damage to the vehicle, and several people are injured. The car needs $50,000 in repairs, and treatment of the injuries totals $250,000. Plus, the driver of the other car is an orthodontist who won’t be able to work for months due to a broken arm and sues you for $200,000 in lost earnings.
You’re on the hook for a grand total of $500,000. If you carry only $300,000 liability coverage with your car insurance, the remaining $200,000 will have to come out of your pocket.
If you have umbrella insurance, it would pay the difference between what your primary insurance covers and what you still owe.
» COMPARE: Car insurance rates
Inside an umbrella insurance policy
|Umbrella Insurance Pays For:||Umbrella Insurance Doesn't Pay For:|
Buying umbrella insurance
Insurers typically sell umbrella insurance in million-dollar increments. This means the cheapest policy available provides up to $1 million in coverage, the next-cheapest policy offers $2 million in coverage, and so on.
Companies sell umbrella insurance only if you already have either auto or property insurance — usually homeowners insurance, but possibly another policy such as renters or condo. You must buy a minimum amount of liability insurance on those coverages before you can buy an umbrella policy; the minimums vary by company.
For instance, to add umbrella coverage to your car insurance, your policy may need to have $100,000 to $300,000 bodily injury liability coverage and $100,000 property damage liability coverage. To add umbrella coverage to a homeowners policy, you need around $300,000 liability insurance.
» MORE: What does car insurance cover?
How much umbrella insurance do you need?
It’s wise to buy at least enough umbrella insurance to cover your net worth. This includes your savings, other assets and income. You may also want to include potential income if you’re likely to earn much more in the near future than you do now — if you’re a medical student, for example.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much umbrella insurance is the “right” amount, because you don’t know how much a potential worst-case lawsuit could cost you. Umbrella policies typically start at $1 million in coverage, so you get a decent amount no matter what you choose.
Where to buy umbrella insurance
Almost all major insurers offer umbrella insurance, but keep in mind most require that you carry your auto or home insurance with them, too. Auto-Owners Insurance is one company that offers a stand-alone umbrella policy, meaning you could carry your auto or homeowners coverage with someone else.
Another big factor to look at when shopping is the maximum limit a company offers. Most umbrella policies stop at $5 million, but some go higher. Travelers Insurance, for instance, offers umbrella insurance up to $10 million.
It also helps to ask questions about what’s covered based on your hobbies or other activities. For example, if your idea of a fun vacation is renting a Jet Ski and hitting the ocean, know that some insurers may exclude these vehicles from their umbrella coverage, while others, like Progressive Insurance, will allow them.
Cost of umbrella insurance
According to the Insurance Information Institute, an umbrella policy with $1 million in coverage costs about $150 to $300 per year. With its high coverage limit, umbrella insurance gives you good value for the cost. In our litigious society, the extra cost may be well worth the peace of mind you get knowing your assets are insulated from lawsuits.
Alex Glenn is a staff writer for NerdWallet, a personal finance site. Email: email@example.com.