Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

December 12, 2005  



Unmarried drivers should shop carefully for insurance

by Thomas F. Coleman

Unmarried drivers beware.  If you don't shop carefully for auto insurance, you might have a major surcharge added onto your insurance premium simply because you are not married.

That's right, unless you live in Massachusetts, many auto insurers penalize unmarried drivers with hefty penalties simply because they are single, divorced, or widowed.  Apparently, under Massachusetts law a driver's marital status may not be used to set prices for auto insurance.

But in the other 49 states, the law does not prohibit such discrimination.  The federal government takes a "hands off" approach on auto insurance, leaving it to the various states to regulate the industry.

Last week I received a passionate letter from a woman in upstate New York.  "Katie" was upset to learn that although she is in her mid-50s, and has a clean driving record, she has been charged a much higher rate for car insurance simply because she is single.  A friend of a similar age, driving record, and same type of car, paid GEICO about $300 less per year in premiums than Katie did -- all because the friend was married.

Katie checked with her own mother who lives in California to see if the marital status penalty was being applied to widows, or only to never married drivers such as Katie.  To her surprise, Century Insurance was imposing a marital status surcharge on her elderly mother. 

So Katie started to call other insurance companies in New York state to search for one that did not penalize single drivers.  All the companies she contacted asked about Katie's marital status. 

When an agent from Response Insurance posed the same question, Katie asked why that was relevant.  Katie said the agent snickered and replied "married folks get a lot better deal."

So Katie kept shopping.  Since she was a member of AARP, Katie checked with Hartford Insurance company which offers discounted rates for AARP members.  Although she got a quote which was tempting, Katie soon discovered that even the Hartford imposed a marital status penalty on unmarried seniors. 

The Hartford's agent told Katie, "everyone does this, it's an industry wide practice."

That's an exaggeration.  Although marital status discrimination is prevalent among auto insurance companies, it is not an industry wide practice.

About 10 years ago, I served on the Anti-Discrimination Task Force of the California Insurance Commissioner and headed up the panel's Marital Status Workgroup.  By surveying many auto insurance companies in California, I learned that a few companies, such as AAA of Southern California, did not use marital status in setting auto insurance rates.

Three years ago, I decided to conduct an experiment to see whether such discrimination was still pervasive.  I went on the Internet to a website which offered to give drivers six quotes for auto insurance. 

I typed in the relevant information, indicating that I was single, and received my first set of six quotes.  Then I typed in the same information, only this time saying that I was divorced.  Then I did it again, stating that I was widowed.  Then I indicated I was married.

I discovered that four of the six companies charged substantially higher rates to all three unmarried categories -- single, divorced, and widowed -- than to a married driver with the same type of car and driving history. 

So even though marital status discrimination is quite common, it is not universal.  That is why unmarried drivers need to spend the time to shop around to find a good rate that does not hinge on their marital status. 

Laura Peet, a marketing consultant in New York city, knows first hand that marital status discrimination is not limited to the never-married or the widowed.  Laura, who is divorced, was interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor two years ago for a story about "The Power of 1."

"Having been single most of my professional career, there have been times when I've felt I was carrying the weight of people with families," Peet told the Monitor.

"When I was married, my car insurance was a certain level, and when I got divorced it went up," Peet complained. "Married people were regarded as more responsible. Clearly that needs to change."

But until the law prohibits marital status discrimination in automobile insurance rates -- which won't be anytime soon -- single people really need to shop and compare, purchasing insurance from companies which don't penalize unmarried drivers. 

Yes, price comparison research may be time consuming, but shopping around can save you up to $500 or more per year if your unmarried, making those funds available for other good purposes.  In fact, a recent consumer survey estimates that the average unmarried American will spend about $545 this holiday season on gifts for family members and friends. 

Think about it.  Spending a few hours obtaining and comparing insurance quotes could save you a bundle if you are unmarried.  That's not a bad way to come up with the dough to pay off the credit cards you are using to purchase those holiday gifts. 

Unmarried America 2005

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.