Can You Afford Long-Term-Care Insurance?

5 things to watch out for in buying coverage.

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Long-term care is likely to be most Americans' greatest expense of all in retirement. A private room in a nursing home costs $76,460 annually on average, or $209 a day, and Medicare typically won't cover it.

Long-term-care insurance can help protect you from some of these unpredictable costs. It can be used to pay for nursing home expenses, adult day care, and in-home help for seniors with chronic conditions or who need extra help recovering from an illness.

But this pricey insurance is prohibitively expensive for many people. AARP estimates that a 65-year-old in good health can expect to pay between $2,000 and $3,000 a year for a policy that covers nursing-home and home care. And Fidelity Investments estimates that a couple, both of whom are 65 in 2008, will need $85,000 to insure against a lifetime of long-term-care expenses.

If you're going to buy long-term-care insurance, here are a few things to consider:

Premiums. Find out what the premium is now and what it will cost in the future. Ask if a pre-existing medical condition could influence premium prices. AARP says you may not want to buy a policy if the cost of premiums will lower your standard of living or force you to give up other things you need right now. The National Program on Women and Aging recommends that, as a rule of thumb, premiums should be less than 20 percent of your disposable income after all other essential bills are paid. So, this type of insurance is primarily appropriate for people with assets between $200,000 and $1.5 million, according to Consumer Reports. Both long-term-care expenses and insurance are so expensive that almost all middle- and low-income households rely on Medicaid for nursing home care after they spend down their assets to a level at which they qualify.

Coverage. You can choose to be covered for different varieties of home healthcare, nursing-home care, or both. Some providers offer lower premiums if you agree to a waiting period of up to 100 days before coverage begins, during which you pay all of your own expenses.

Be sure to ask about the duration of coverage. Long-term-care coverage doesn't always last that long. The average length of stay in a nursing home is 3.7 years for women and 2.7 years for men, according to Joan Bloom, a senior vice president for Fidelity Investments Life Insurance Co. You can choose a benefit period as short as two years or as long as the rest of your life. And you'll want to find out about maximum daily, monthly, or lifetime payouts and whether they are indexed for inflation. If your care costs more than the caps, you will have to pay for it out of your own pocket.

The company. Ask what happens if the insurance company should go out of business before you need long-term-care coverage. And check out its track record for paying out claims. You can examine ratings of companies online at A.M. Best, Moody's, and Standard & Poor's. Consumer Reports recommends that you buy only from insurers that are rated in the top two financial-strength categories by at least two of the ratings services. You can also check up on a company with your state insurance department.

The fine print. Read any contract you sign carefully, and ask questions. Find out how to cancel, what happens if you stop paying the premiums, how many times you can renew, and what needs to happen before you can begin using your benefits. A fee-only financial planner, whom you pay by the hour and who doesn't accept commissions for selling you financial products, can help you decipher the fine-print sales pitch.

Your state. Insurance laws and options vary by state. The nonprofit Family Caregiver Alliance has a Web tool to help consumers peruse long-term-care options in each state. And the National Association of Insurance Commissioners offers consumer tips for buying long-term-care insurance.