Provider Reviews: Northwestern Mutual Disability Insurance

With so many insurance providers to choose from, selecting a disability insurance policy can be a difficult decision.

It requires research. Comparing various plans is vital. You want to be sure that the one you choose offers the best coverage and terms.

At Physicians Thrive, we’re committed to providing physicians with the information to help them make that decision. Our ongoing series of Disability Insurance Provider Reviews is designed to do exactly that.

In recent months, we’ve reviewed some of the Big 6 insurance providers, including Ameritas and MassMutual.

Today we’re taking a look at Northwestern Mutual.


Who is Northwestern Mutual?

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company has been in business since 1857. Founded as the Mutual Life Insurance Company of the State of Wisconsin, the company expanded to the Midwest and East Coast as early as 1865.

After 100 years in business, Northwestern Mutual began offering additional services, including disability insurance and long-term care insurance. Despite its other products, the company is still best known as a life insurance policy provider.

Northwestern Mutual gets high ratings from A.M. Best, Standard & Poor’s, and Moody’s. And that is because the company is financially sound. As a mutual company, it doesn’t have shareholders. Instead, their policy owners can actually share in the dividends of the company.

Like all disability insurance providers, Northwestern Mutual has had its share of denied claims.

In 2017, an attorney with congestive heart failure sued Northwestern Mutual for denying his disability claim. Though his physician told him not to return to work, Northwestern Mutual claimed that he could have returned to work but chose not to. The court agreed that Northwestern Mutual’s denial of the claim was wrongful and ruled that the attorney be paid his disability benefits.

In 2018, a Tennessee physician with an extreme anxiety disorder surrendered his medical license, as he could no longer practice. Northwestern Mutual denied his claim, stating that it was the loss of his license, not a disability, that prevented him from working.

In the 2018 case, the claimant lost his suit in court, and Northwestern Mutual did not have to pay. The physician was left unemployed and without disability insurance benefits. This case highlighted the importance of securing a disability policy offering broad coverage with limited exclusions.

Interestingly, Good Financial Cents, Consumers Advocate, and Consumer Affairs have all compiled lists of the top disability insurance companies in the market. Northwestern Mutual doesn’t make any of their lists.


Individual Disability Insurance from Northwestern Mutual

Northwestern Mutual offers a variety of disability insurance options for individuals. They even have a policy titled “Medical Own Occupation Disability Insurance,” designed specifically for physicians and dentists.

But, notwithstanding its targeted audience, the actual terms of the policy don’t appear to offer benefits significantly better than any other insurance provider.

In fact, it could be argued that Northwestern Mutual actually offers less protection.

Why?

Because of how they define disability.


Definition of Disability

One of the most important aspects of any disability insurance policy is the “definition of disability.” A policyholder must meet the definition in order to be eligible to collect benefits.

There are three main definitions that most disability providers generally use:

  • Any occupation
  • Own-occupation, not working
  • True own-occupation

Let’s take a look at what each entails.

Any Occupation

This definition is the hardest standard to meet in order to collect disability income.

To be eligible for benefits under this definition, you must be so severely disabled that you cannot work any job. You cannot work part-time, you cannot be able to do any part of your job, and you can’t do any type of work at all.

To collect benefits, you must have a serious illness or a severe disability.

Own-Occupation, Not Working

To qualify for benefits under an own-occupation, not working policy, you must be unable to work in your current job but able to work in another. However, in order to collect benefits, you cannot be working at all. This definition is sometimes viewed as the most complicated.

Under this definition, you must have the ability to work another job but not actually work.

True Own-Occupation

True own-occupation is the preferred definition of disability in our opinion. With this definition, you can collect benefits as long as you are unable to perform the duties of the job you were doing before your injury or illness. It does not restrict or limit you from doing other work.

With a true own-occupation definition, you may work another job (even a higher-paying one) and still collect your full benefits.

These definitional distinctions are critical to a physician’s ability to collect full benefits. At Physicians Thrive, we have had the unpleasant experience of reviewing many disallowed claims where physicians believed they were entitled to full benefits, yet their claims were denied based on definitional technicalities.

Note: Northwestern Mutual does offer a true own- occupation policy, but not to physicians. Physicians are offered the Medical Own-Occupation definition of disability that states that in order to collect full benefits under a total disability claim, the physician cannot be working at all.


Northwestern Mutual’s Definition of Disability: Medical Own-Occupation

Northwestern Mutual’s definition of disability: Medical Own-Occupation reads as follows:

“The Insured is totally disabled when both unable to perform the principal duties of the regular occupation and not gainfully employed in any occupation.”

Northwestern Mutual presents this as a flexible definition under which physicians can choose to: keep working in some capacity, stop working altogether, or switch to a new career and still collect benefits.

But the definition makes it clear that you will not receive full benefits unless you are “totally disabled.” And to be “totally disabled,” you cannot work at all.

It may sound enticing to physicians because it’s called “Medical Own-Occupation.”

But be wary, in its application it may not be the broad own-occupation definition that most physicians want and need to protect their income stream.


Disability Insurance Premiums

Monthly insurance premiums vary depending on your policy, the amount of coverage you need, your elimination period (as described below), the number of riders you add, and other terms and conditions.

To determine what a fair premium is, it’s best to compare quotes from various providers to see how the rates differ for comparable coverage.

Physicians Thrive is always available to provide physicians with disability insurance information and resources as well as free disability insurance quotes. We are committed to offering financial guidance to physicians so you can choose the policy that’s best for you.

In our experience, Northwestern Mutual premiums tend to be just as high as (and sometimes higher than) other insurance providers. But, in our view, their coverage is oftentimes less comprehensive.

Keep in mind the definitional distinctions discussed above: Northwestern Mutual’s own-occupation definition of disability appears different than other providers. It’s likely that you can pay the same amount for a policy with another provider that offers a broader own-occupation definition oftentimes used in the industry.


Elimination Period

Every policy has an elimination period. This is the waiting period between the day that you become disabled and the day that you can start collecting benefits.

Elimination periods vary depending on the policy and the provider.

Elimination periods for Northwestern Mutual policies vary between approximately 90 and 180 days.

Elimination periods for other insurance companies vary between 30 and 720 days. A shorter period means that you can start collecting your benefits faster.

Yet some physicians prefer a longer waiting period.

Why?

Because the longer the elimination period is, the less your insurance premium may be.

Many physicians and high-income earners have the means to sustain their financial obligations for an extended period of time. That could be because they have a significant savings account or have a spouse that also brings in a high income. In this scenario, a longer elimination period may be preferred.

If you don’t have an income-earning spouse or enough savings to sustain your lifestyle, a short elimination period may be preferred.


Built-in Benefits

Unfortunately, Northwestern Mutual lacks some of the built-in benefits that other companies include in their disability policies.

Here is a partial list of the built-in benefits that other insurance companies include. In addition, we’ve also listed the upgrades that the other companies offer that Northwestern Mutual does not.

  • Presumptive disability does not have to be a permanent condition
  • Survivor benefit
  • Non-disabling injury benefit
  • COBRA premium benefit
  • Supplemental health benefit
  • Good health benefit
  • Family care benefit
  • Longer premium waiver period (can get up to six months more after disability ends)
  • Benefits can start sooner for a subsequent disability — as short as 30 days
  • Hospice benefit
  • Longer successive periods for recurrent disability so that more benefits are paid
  • Serious illness supplemental endorsement
  • Rehabilitation benefit offers more with additional help for worksite modifications and access, not just rehab.
  • True own-occupation rider available for more occupations, not just 6A and 5A (available for all medical specialties)
  • Medical specialty named in the own-occupation definition of total disability
  • Shorter elimination periods (30 and 60 days available)
  • Waiver of elimination period for transplant surgery benefit

Here is a partial list of the features and benefits with other providers included within their optional riders that Northwestern Mutual does not include:

  • Guaranteed insurability option that includes all three of the following: rate structure, occupation class and discounts, not just occupation class
  • Benefit increase riders that do not require any extra insurance premium before exercised
  • Option to have an uncapped benefit amount with the increase option rider so that the policy is uncapped
  • Additional discounts when combined with Business Overhead Protection
  • Option to choose between Basic or Enhanced Residual riders
  • Enhanced residual only requires 15% loss of income instead of 20%
  • Higher payout for partial disabilities. Up to 100% of the benefit amount during the first year of disability
  • Recovery benefit as part of the residual rider is not limited to 12 months and triggers at 15%, not 20%
  • Cost of living adjustment “catch up” provision and option to increase benefit after disability ends
  • Higher issue amounts of Catastrophic Benefit
  • Catastrophic benefits pay during a presumptive disability
  • Student loan rider
  • Retirement protection rider

You can learn more about some of these built-in benefits through our Ameritas Provider Review and our MassMutual Provider Review. For an explanation of all of the other bullets above, check out our review of the six most well-known disability providers.


Optional Riders

Like all other insurance providers, Northwestern Mutual offers you the chance to add optional riders to their policy. Riders provide additional measures of coverage and offer added protection. They also add to your monthly insurance premiums.

The more riders you add, the higher your monthly premium will be.

Here are some of the optional riders that you can add to a disability insurance policy with Northwestern Mutual:

Additional Purchase Benefit Rider

This rider offers policy owners the chance to obtain more coverage if they need it. This is a common rider that almost all insurance providers allow you to add.

When you decide to buy more coverage, most insurance companies will amend your policy to reflect the changes in coverage and premiums.

Northwestern Mutual handles things a bit differently.

If you exercise this option with Northwestern Mutual, your current policy will not be amended. Instead, an entirely new policy will be created.

That means that the rates, terms, and conditions of your policy are all subject to change. There’s no guarantee you will get the same terms as you had with your original policy.

Future Increase Benefit

The Future Increase Benefit is another rider that all insurance companies provide. This simply allows your benefits to increase based on inflation and the Consumer Price Index.


Cons of Northwestern Mutual Disability Insurance

NW Mutual Review

Physicians rely on us to be honest, informative, and transparent. So we must address some of the common concerns that physicians have experienced with Northwestern Mutual and shared with us.

The biggest problem with Northwestern Mutual, and many other carriers, is that they have a reputation for denying claims.

The whole reason for having disability insurance is to protect yourself and your finances in case you cannot work in your current job. Any insurance disability provider, including Northwestern Mutual, can make it difficult to collect your benefits.

There are a variety of tactics insurers use in order to deny claims, negate policies, and refuse to pay benefits.

Expect Your Application to Be Scrutinized

Similar to our experience with most insurance companies, it is common for Northwestern Mutual to take a look at your policy application both before and after your policy goes into effect. In fact, they often do so within the first two years of a new policy. Don’t be alarmed by this one though. This is standard protocol for just about every insurance company.

But even if you’re ten years into your policy, they can still look back on your application as a way to deny your claim.

They Will Dig Deep Into Your Tax Returns

When you file a claim, your tax return and sources of income will be scrutinized — just as they would with any insurance company. As a physician, if you have the medical own-occupation definition of disability from Northwestern Mutual, any other income not related to your existing occupation would reduce your benefits. This is one of the key factors that raise a concern with our advisory team because, for physicians, there are several insurance company options that exist with a true own-occupation definition of disability available. This means you would not have your disability benefits reduced, if, while disabled from your own occupation, you had income from another source. You would receive the full benefit on a partial or a total disability claim regardless of the other income you earned from another income source.

In-Person Interviews

Northwestern also conducts field interviews. These face-to-face interviews are a way for them to ensure that your claim is valid. It’s also a way for them to find inconsistencies that can lead to a denial of your claim.

When you’re suffering an illness or injury, having to meet with your insurance company in person is not usually at the top of most people’s to-do list.

You’ll Need to Provide Lots of Evidence to Back Up Your Claim

If you file a disability claim, Northwestern Mutual requires that you seek continued treatment from your doctors. They require you to provide them with evidence of such treatment.

You’ll need to show your medical records periodically to ensure that you are disabled throughout the entirety of your benefit period.

A claim through any provider will require evidence — no claim is ever easy.


Is Northwestern Mutual Disability Insurance a Smart Choice?

NW Mutual Disability Review

In our professional opinion, the short answer is no.

As mentioned earlier, there are over 30 provisions either not available as built-in benefits or are not available with an upgrade to your policy through optional riders.

In our view and based on writing disability insurance policies for thousands of physicians nationwide, there are providers that offer better policies with more options and more flexibility than Northwestern Mutual.

Most physicians prefer disability insurance policies provided by the Big 6 insurance companies because they do not require you to “not be working” (like the “Medical Own-Occupation of Total Disability rider with Northwestern Mutual does).

Who are the Big 6?

Why are these companies called the Big 6 by most insurance professionals?

Because they are the primary providers that offer physicians a broad own-occupation definition of disability. While Northwestern Mutual does have a true own-occupation rider for only two non-medical occupation classes, it is not offered to physicians as of the publication of this article.

To find a disability insurance policy that offers better terms, more complete benefits, and the broad and conventional own-occupation definition of disability, contact Physicians Thrive. We can help steer you in the right direction, so you get a policy that works for your needs.

¹ Source: White Coat Investor


Do a quick Google search for “Northwestern Mutual disability insurance reviews,” and you’ll see the big red flag almost immediately. There are lots of search results for law firms specializing in lawsuits against the company and others.

This doesn’t mean that the Big 6 haven’t had their share of lawsuits. Every company has had some degree of them. What it boils down to is how broad the reach of the policy is and how many types of disabilities and situations will the policy pay benefits.

In our experience reviewing hundreds of in force Northwestern Mutual policies, every single one of them did not have the broad, true own-occupation definition that allowed you to work in another occupation and receive full benefits without any reduction.

As a physician looking to protect your finances, it’s best to stick to a policy from one of the Big 6 insurance companies noted above. For more information on how to select the best policy, contact Physicians Thrive now.

The information above is provided to you as educational material designed to assist you in understanding disability insurance. It contains the opinions of the insurance professionals at Physicians Thrive based on their many years of experience selling disability insurance as independent insurance brokers. The information above is also based on publicly available information gathered from sources believed to be reliable, but it is not guaranteed. Furthermore, policies and riders may vary and may not be available in all states.

The description of Northwestern Mutual’s disability insurance policies was not furnished by Northwestern Mutual. For information on such policies, you should consult a representative of Northwestern Mutual.

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