The Tudor home in Silver Spring, Maryland, remained filled with the couple’s shared possessions — books, eclectic art, musical instruments — but suddenly felt achingly empty.
Shelby French knew she had to move after she discovered that her husband of 18 years, 49-year-old Justice Department lawyer David Pehlke, took his life in their second-floor bedroom late in the evening of Easter Sunday last April.
In shock and running on instinct, French, 52, a clinical social worker, closed the bedroom door. She never spent another night in the room, retreating with the couple’s 13-year-old son to the first-floor living room to sleep on couches and air mattresses. Within months, she sold their beloved but now forever tainted, century-old home and moved two decades worth of the couple’s belongings to a new home in neighboring Takoma Park.
She brought their black-and-white wedding photos, a painting they had purchased of a whimsical dragonfly, the Boggle game that had become a pastime, and his collection of guitars and banjos.
But she entered her new world without a lifeline they’d hoped to never need.
On the advice of a financial adviser, the couple each took out life insurance policies in July 2019 to provide security in the event of a family tragedy.
Both policies included a “suicide exclusion” common to life insurance but that French — supported by her congressman, Jamie Raskin, whose 25-year-old son, Tommy, took his life last New Year’s Eve — considers anachronistic and needlessly cruel.
The clause specifies that the company won’t pay benefits “if the insured commits suicide” within 2 years of the policy’s issuance. Instead, the beneficiary receives a refund of the paid premiums plus interest, which for French would mean a few thousand dollars compared to $2 million for herself and her son.
To Raskin, the exclusion seems to reflect a view of suicide that has been overtaken by a contemporary understanding of depression as a serious disease. His son left a farewell note that said: “Please forgive me. My illness won today. ‘’
“I do believe there is something off about the underlying assumption that someone would purchase a life insurance policy in order to commit suicide and have the proceeds go to their family,” the congressman said. “Shelby is raising a truly important issue for everyone to look at.”
Standard in the insurance industry, suicide exclusions are intended to protect companies from people who may have financial incentive to kill themselves. Maryland, like most other states, allows the exclusions but limits them to 2 years.
Lincoln National Life Insurance Co., which issued Pehlke’s policy, told The Baltimore Sun it “understands that the loss of life carries with it financial implications for the deceased’s family and does pay beneficiaries policy death benefits in cases of suicide following the 2-year exclusionary period.”
Lincoln National declined to comment on French’s case, citing privacy considerations. It said the exclusion generally “helps balance price affordability with prudent risk management and strengthens claims paying ability for all customers.”
Companies also deny benefits for other reasons, such as dangerous or criminal behavior, or when a claimant lies about their health status.
Opposition to the suicide loophole comes from diverse quarters.
“It’s not like they’re burning their house down for the insurance money,” said University of Louisville law professor Timothy S. Hall, who has written in opposition to the clauses. “My sense of this is that right now we are making our mistakes on the side of denying coverage to people who did nothing that is morally blameworthy.”
The American Psychiatric Association doesn’t have a position on the insurance policy restrictions. But Columbia University psychiatry professor Paul Appelbaum — a former association president — considers it “very unlikely” that many people are motivated to end their lives for an insurance payout “in a premeditated way.”
“And the reason for that,” he said, is because “suicide is almost invariably an impulsive act.”
Interviewed in her new home — where three of Pehlke’s guitars rest against the living room wall and his faded Chicago Cubs cap is displayed on a shelf — French said she has tried to gather any available clues to piece together the mindset of her gentle 6-foot-4 husband, who seemed to love being part of their small family.
Old videos and Polaroid photos show him clowning with her and their friends, playing with the dog, and — 9 years ago — lifting his son over his head to position the star on their Christmas tree. “What do you think? Want me to straighten it a little bit?” he says to the boy.
Pehlke was working on a noir mystery novel when he died. French is contemplating trying to finish it, imagining it might feel like a joint project.
“I could probably interpret the rhythm of where he was going,” she said.
She said he was never diagnosed with an underlying medical condition that could have contributed to suicide.
French told claims investigators that he didn’t see a therapist. She said he walked 20,000 steps on most days.
“I can guarantee that in July 2019, David was not thinking of suicide,” said French, referencing the month the policy was issued. “It wasn’t David who said we need more life insurance. It was the financial adviser.”
But French said his outlook may have worsened in the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic.
“He was telling me he was depressed a couple weeks before. There were indications of feeling overwhelmed at work,” she said. “But warning signs of impending suicide weren’t there.”
As he often did on Sunday evenings, Pehlke volunteered to drive to pick up dinner for the family at a nearby grocery store last Easter.
Receipts show he also stopped at a hardware store, located in the same shopping plaza as the Whole Foods, and purchased the tools he used in his death. She still has flashbacks of finding him.
“This is why I’ve come to the conclusion that this was extraordinarily impulsive,” said French.
As a claims investigator reviews her case. French said she is certain she will be denied because she wrote plainly in a required affidavit that “My husband died by suicide at our home,” and because his death fell — by three months — within the exclusion period.
French, who has worked internationally designing programs for vulnerable children and youth, said she has enough money to make ends meet but wants to help others avoid the “re-victimization” of enduring a loved one’s suicide, followed by an insurance denial.
She is beginning an informal lobbying and education campaign with the goal, she said in a planning document, of compelling the life insurance industry to thoroughly consider “the new and constantly updated information about what we know about depression and other mental health issues that contribute to the act of suicide.”
French concedes that “a small number” of people may attempt suicide to try to funnel money to family members.
That’s why she says she doesn’t favor eliminating the suicide exclusion, but rather shortening it to a period — she hasn’t determined exactly how long — that reflects how quickly self-harm can arise and doesn’t treat suicide “like fraud.”
The National Alliance of Life Companies, a trade group representing life and health insurance companies, declined comment on the exclusion.
Insurance wasn’t an issue in the case of Raskin’s son. But the congressman said he would like to help French, although he’s not yet sure exactly how.
“I don’t pretend to be a psychiatrist or psychologist,” the former constitutional law professor said. But, he said, “it would be a great thing to have a serious legislative discussion about that rule and whether the line is drawn in the appropriate place.”
Since the suicide of his son — a Harvard law student — Raskin, 60, has said he wants, in any way he can, to ease the stigma still associated with depression.
French said the insurance industry’s treatment of suicide perpetuates old notions of mental health issues as moral failings.
Suicide rates rose 33% between 1999 and 2019 before falling slightly the last two years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although there is disagreement over the cause of the increase, many researchers cite an increasing lack of community or family connections. While suicides haven’t gone up during the pandemic, there have been alarming trends such as a rise in attempted suicides by adolescent girls that is widely attributed to isolation from teachers, friends and other traditional forms of support.
French and many other insurance reform advocates prefer to say “died by suicide” instead of “committed suicide” because they say the latter sounds akin to a crime.
“I hope we’re at an age where we can look at these things through the lens of science and public health rather than criminal law and moral judgment,” Raskin said.
He said it gives him hope that, since Tommy’s suicide, he and his wife, Sarah, have received more than 15,000 letters from people not only offering sympathy but “talking about their family’s situation and what they’ve been through.”
Last June, Raskin appeared at a news conference promoting the Thomas Bloom Raskin Act, a new Maryland law allowing people to request periodic mental health check-ins from the state’s 2-1-1 phone call program.
“Let’s hope we get to a place where we don’t lose anybody else,” the congressman said softly.
Since insurance is mostly regulated at the state level, French said she hopes to find a “champion” among Maryland lawmakers as she pushes to shorten the suicide exception period.
The Maryland Insurance Administration said it has no formal position on the rule. Since the exclusion is codified in law, it would require legislation to change.
“However,” the administration said in an email response to The Sun, “we do note that the reason for the suicide exclusion has nothing to do with morality or social/moral/modern views on suicide. It has to do with avoiding the circumstance where someone takes out a policy, pays a single premium, then commits suicide.”
It’s the same reason, the agency’s statement continued, “why life insurance is not issued to people who are terminally ill or may exclude death by specific diseases that a person is known to have.”
French is taking time off from work to grieve, tend to her son who is in middle school, and pursue her campaign. She periodically chats on social media with others who have lost relatives or friends to suicide.
“I plan to build a bigger group who sees the issue in this,” she said. “This falling in front of me, it seems really unjust and I feel I can’t let it lie.”