The final injustice to strike Seth Snyder would not be the sudden and devastating loss of his wife, but the realization that the steps the couple took to ensure financial security in the case of such a tragedy would be all for naught.
In late 2021, I shared with you the Snyders' heartbreaking story: Radhika, a 39-year-old family physician, died by suicide after apparently suffering a postpartum psychosis following the birth of her second child. Snyder was left to manage raising a newborn and an 8-year-old daughter on his own. The Snyders' village of loved ones rallied to keep them going, raising money for the family through GoFundMe and even coordinating a "milk train" from various pumping moms.
But one thing that did not come through is Radhika's life insurance policy.
Many policies have an exclusion period that exempts insurance companies from paying death benefits to survivors if the policyholder takes their own life within the first two years of coverage. The so-called "suicide clause" is meant to protect firms from fraud and financial risk, but it is a cruel blow to already traumatized families and subscribes to outdated notions of mental illness.
"The way it's framed is as if it's a moral failure," Snyder said. "That's how they investigate them: They look for what they view as proof that a person was plotting their own eventual death and would use life insurance as a vehicle to fraudulently make money for their family."
Problem is, that's not usually how suicide works. Research shows that many people who attempted suicide decided upon it hastily, rather than methodically planning it. In one study, survivors of near-lethal suicides were asked how much time passed between when they decided on suicide and when they actually attempted it. About one in four said it was less than five minutes. Only 13% said they deliberated for a day or more.
"It's beyond me to think someone is going to decide they're going to kill themselves, take out a life insurance policy, and wait two years to take their own life," said Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI-MN. "It just doesn't make any sense."
Abderholden's group is pushing for a change in state law that would reduce the exclusion period from two years to one, in line with how it works in in North Dakota, Colorado and Missouri. The bill is a compromise — Abderholden initially wanted the exclusion period reduced to three months. But as it now stands, the bill has the support of Minnesota's insurance lobby. A unanimous and bipartisan vote in a House committee last week bodes well for the bill's chances of being passed this session.
In the Snyders' case, State Farm's denial of benefits seems especially unkind.
The couple first took out a policy in 2012 when they were expecting their first child. In 2019, they updated their benefit amount as Radhika was wrapping up her medical residency, planning for the earnings she would make as a doctor.
She died about two weeks before the two-year period expired. Snyder said he was offered only the return of the premiums paid in the last two years even though the couple were policyholders with State Farm for nine years. He said his wife, and others like her, did not buy life insurance with the intent of defrauding a wealthy financial services firm.
"People who die by suicide are victims of severe and legitimate illness, and their surviving family members do not deserve the additional cruelty of financial instability when their lives have already been shattered," Snyder told legislators last week.
In response to my email, State Farm declined to comment about this case or its practices in general. Snyder said the generosity of friends and family allowed him to not work for the first year after Radhika's death.
But "GoFundMe is not a long-term solution," he said. Had he received the benefits, "I can almost guarantee I wouldn't be working full-time right now. I would love to be more present for the kids, and have more downtime when I needed it for my mental health. It's just not the current reality."
Snyder has been channeling his grief into advocacy, speaking up not only in support of this bill, but raising awareness about the pressures placed on women in medicine. He's teamed up with the family of Gretchen Butler, another physician mom who died by suicide in 2021, to create the Dr. Mom Foundation.
In Butler's case, her family also was denied life insurance benefits because she died months before the exclusion period ended, said her sister, Michelle Chestovich. Other kinds of death, from car accidents to cancer, typically don't face the same kind of discrimination.
But Butler's family was punished, because she died of a ruthless disease of the brain.
It's reassuring to know that state legislators on both sides of the aisle sense how unconscionable it is to cheat traumatized survivors out of financial support. Other states need to bring their understanding of suicide into the 21st century.
Let these grief-stricken families receive every penny they deserve.
Where to find help
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. You also can text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor.