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Thinking about how we will die one day is uncomfortable. Most of us expect (and hope) that we will pass away peacefully from natural causes. But in reality a significant number of people die from unexpected, unnatural causes– and if proper financial plans are not in place, these can leave loved ones in dire financial straits.

A recent ‘Life Surprises’ survey by Sanlam, conducted among South Africans over the age of 50, found that nearly half of respondents (46%) expected to die of old age, and 13.8% of illness. 6.7% expected to die of unnatural causes. According to Sanlam chief medical adviser Dr Pieter Coetzer, Sanlam’s claims statistics indicate that more than 10% of the deaths claimed for were the result of unnatural causes, including road traffic and other accidents, homicide, suicide, fire, drowning, poisoning and animal bites. Over a third of these deaths were of people aged between 36 and 45 years.

Figures released recently by the Medical Research Council show that men in South Africa are three times more likely to die as a result of injuries (around 240 deaths per 100 000 every year) than women (70 per 100 000). For men, the main cause of unnatural death is homicide, followed by road traffic accidents, suicide and fire. For women, the leading cause is road traffic accidents, followed by homicide, fire and suicide.

“People don’t anticipate dying from unnatural causes – they tend to have an attitude of ‘it won’t happen to me’. This means they often don’t have appropriate financial strategies in place, which can have severe financial consequences for their families if the unexpected does happen,” says Coetzer.

He says the most important measures everyone should take to prevent unnecessary hardship to loved ones include ensuring that all debt is paid off as quickly as possible, ensuring your family will continue to have an income if something happens to you, and that education benefits are in place if you have minor children.

Clive Hill, Legal Adviser at Sanlam Trust cautions that it is essential to have a valid and updated Will held in safe custody. “A Will is an essential part of one’s financial plan and can add valuable protection for one’s heirs and beneficiaries in the form of a testamentary trust.”

Some form of life cover is also essential. “Traditional life cover – which is advisable – will automatically include accidental death cover. However, if for some reason you don’t qualify for a traditional life insurance policy – for health reasons, for example – then you should at least look at accidental death cover. The premiums are much lower than conventional life cover, and you won’t be subjected to underwriting based on your health.”

Coetzer says Sanlam’s claims statistics have revealed certain ‘red flags’ which increase the chances for unnatural death:

  • If you have a body mass index (BMI) over 30
  • If you smoke (smokers’ mortality rate is double that of non-smokers – for all causes of death)
  • If you ride a motorbike
  • If you suffer from a mood disorder, including depression.

“We are not certain what the reasons are for the strong correlation between these factors and unnatural deaths – it may be because people who smoke or ride a motorbike are more likely to be risk-takers.”

Coetzer says whether or not these ‘red flags’ apply to you, accidents can happen to anyone, at any age. “It is advisable to speak to a professional financial adviser to determine which measures you can take to ensure your loved ones will not be impacted financially should you no longer be around,” he concludes.

BOX – summary of key findings

  • 78.5% of people claim to have had unexpected life events (good or bad) in either their own lives or that of a member of their family.
  • Just less than a third of the sample (28.2%)expect to outlive their partners.
  • Of those who expect to outlive their partner, the majority (35.0%) are uncertain about how many years longer they will live, but just over a fifth (21.4%) expect to outlive them by between five and 10 years and 29.7% say they expect to live for more than 10 years after their partner dies.
  • Over half expect to live well into their 80s but only 1.3% of believe they will live to be over 120.
  • Most expect to die of old age (46%) or illness (13.8%).
  • Half the sample (49.5%) reported a death in the family as being the event that has had the biggest emotional impact on them.
  • 97.2% of those that lost savings or pension savings rated this event as having a devastating or high financial impact, whereas 93.7 % of people that faced the closure of their own business rated the financial impact as being devastating or high. 89.2% of people that lost their income or were retrenched rated this as having a devastating or high financial impact.
  • People find themselves largely unprepared for the financial impact of these events.
  • 40.5% currently support a family member that they were not expecting to support. Grandchildren (44%), children (43.6%), extended family members (20.2%), parents (12.8%) and spouses (11.1%) are cited most as having to be unexpectedly supported.
  • Respondents have many financial regrets - 74.3% of the people surveyed would change something in their financial preparation and 82.3% wished that they had done more to be better financially prepared for life.
  • Things that they would change: to save more of their earnings (54%), start saving for retirement earlier (47.5%), provide for unexpected life events (43.7%), spend less (42.6%)and get advice from a financial planner (14.3%).
  • Over a third of the sample (31.7%) got their financial advice from a financial planner, but 28.5% did their own research and planning, and 23.2% got advice from their parents or no-one (21%).
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