Coronavirus: Couples 'furious' as wedding insurers refuse payouts

Oscar Williams-Grut
Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
Laura Archibald and fiancee Charlie had their insurance claim turned down by Debenhams. Photo: Laura Archibald

Engaged couples stand to lose tens of thousands of pounds on cancelled weddings, as insurers refuse to pay out over the COVID-19 pandemic.

Weddings across the country have been rearranged or cancelled due to the outbreak of novel coronavirus and subsequent lockdown. The UK wedding market is estimated to be worth around £10bn ($12.5bn) annually and many couples hope to recoup money spent on ceremonies through insurance.

However, many insurers in this corner of the market are refusing to payout on claims. Yahoo Finance UK has spoken to a dozen would-be brides and grooms who have been left angry and frustrated by UK General, a Leeds-based insurer that is refusing to pay out on policies. Yahoo Finance UK is aware of other providers also refusing payouts.

Debenhams ‘the worst for sure’

Laura Archibald, 27, from Rochdale is among those to have a claim rejected. She bought coverage from Debenhams, which acts as an introducer (a firm which introduces a person to a financial promotion) for UK General. Her ceremony was meant to be held on 21 March but the government said all venues, restaurants and bars must close just a day before the wedding.

Debenhams said Archibald’s policy didn’t cover the cancellation because it was caused by government action, rather than an infectious disease outbreak. A specific clause in her policy said claims could not be made due to government actions.

“We're gutted and we don't understand how anyone is going to be able to make a claim at the moment,” Archibald said. “We thought we would be covered under this section with it mentioning ‘outbreak of infectious or contagious disease’.”

Lorraine Carroll, an Essex-based wedding planner, told Yahoo Finance UK she was aware of at least 20 couples who had been unable to claim on their Debenhams policies.

“Debenhams are the worst for sure,” she said.

Carroll said most insurers weren’t paying out but she was aware of some that were, such as John Lewis. Carroll said she was “flummoxed” by the situation, as most policies had very similar wording.

‘They haven’t sent a single email’

Many Debenhams customers claim they have been unable to get through to the company to make claims, with phone lines overwhelmed and emails unanswered. Several told Yahoo Finance UK they were left on hold and then hung up on.

Christopher McCraig, 28, from Scotland said he spent an estimated 10 hours trying to reach someone on the phone. Several times, he was cut off after waiting for more than an hour on hold.

On one occasion, McCraig was also forced to listen to a hold recording about “which is most popular outfit that turn the other sex on.”

“Imagine hearing that repeatedly on speaker whilst trying to home-school my two young kids,” he said.

When he did finally reach someone, McCraig’s claim was denied. He told Yahoo Finance UK he was “furious.”

Several other Debenhams policy holders expressed anger and frustration over how the company was handling COVID-19 claims.

“They haven’t sent a single email to their policyholders,” Christina, 30, from London told Yahoo Finance UK.

“You chose Debenhams because you trust it as a brand, it’s a brand that you grow up with. Now either we have to cancel and we know we’re not insured, and we have to rely on goodwill to rearrange, or we’ll lose about £13,000.”

(Christina did not want to share her last name because her family have not been told about her situation.)

A spokesperson for Debenhams said: “Our insurance provider is working on processing claims as quickly as possible but, as you might expect, the current situation means that there are inevitably delays to the process.

“We understand this is a difficult time and that engaged couples are keen to get clarity as soon as possible. We apologise to any customers affected.”

‘We’re not millionaires’

Debenhams is not the only insurer leaving customers frustrated. Uma Kumaran told Yahoo Finance UK she had similar problems with WeddingPlan. WeddingPlan is a trading name for UK General, the same company behind Debenhams wedding insurance.

Kumaran, 33, from London and her partner Jacob, 35, from Wales were planning a Hindu wedding, with ceremonies beginning in late June. She paid £355 for specialist Asian wedding insurance that gave her cover up to £100,000.

“I specifically remember looking at the time if it covered COVID-19 and it did,” she told Yahoo Finance UK. “With that in mind, I purchased it.”

An FAQ claiming COVID-19 would be covered has since been removed, Kumaran said, and replaced with a new statement suggesting the pandemic will not be covered.

A screenshot from an FAQ on WeddingPlan's website suggesting disruption due to COVID-19 would be covered. Photo: WeddingPlan Policyholders group

Policyholders told Yahoo Finance UK Debenhams also initially posted an online FAQs saying COVID-19 would be covered. It was subsequently replaced with a new one saying the opposite.

Kumaran has been unable to talk about her policy with WeddingPlan by phone and emails have gone unanswered. She told Yahoo Finance UK it felt like she was being “fobbed off.”

If she cannot claim compensation, she estimates her and her partner will be £40,000 out of pocket.

“We’re not millionaires,” said Kumaran, who works in the Mayor of London’s office. “This is hard earned money that we’ve saved and could otherwise go towards a house that we’d like to buy. Everyone deserves to have a nice wedding if you can and if you save hard and work towards it, why not?”

‘Additional stress and worry’

Kumaran is part of a Google group with over 40 other disgruntled WeddingPlan policyholders. The group are currently considering joint legal action.

“We are ordinary, hard-working people who have spent months or years saving for our wedding days — only to be screwed over by an unscrupulous business with tens of millions in assets,” a spokesperson for the group told Yahoo Finance UK. “Insurance is supposed to give people peace of mind, not additional stress and worry.”

“There’s obviously far worse things going on out there and crying about a wedding doesn’t feel right,” Kumaran said. “But at the same time, it doesn’t feel fair either.”

Accounts show UK General made a profit of £838,582 in 2018 on revenues of £13m. The company had net assets worth £8.1m. As well as wedding insurance, UK General offers property insurance, event insurance, and other specialist cover.

Ryan Griffiths and his partner Louise. Photo: Ryan Griffiths

UK General did not respond to repeated requests to comment for this story, made via email, LinkedIn, and voicemails.

Sarah Kocianski, head of research at financial consultancy 11:FS, said UK General had the right to deny payout based on government actions.

Policy documents, reviewed by Yahoo Finance UK, exclude coverage for “claim arising directly or indirectly from a government regulation or act” and any “losses arising from prohibitive regulations by the government of any country.” UK General argues that it was the government’s decision to lockdown the country that led to wedding cancellations, not COVID-19 per se.

While the policies do contain provisions for infectious disease, they only cover outbreaks at the event or venue.

“If there had been a Norovirus outbreak at the hotel you’re having your wedding in and they had to deep clean the hotel, then you would be covered,” Kocianski said.

Most wedding insurers across the industry are not paying out, she said.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) estimates around £1.2bn will be paid out by UK insurers over the coronavirus pandemic but just £25m of that will be on wedding, school trip, and event cover. (This partly reflects the small size of the wedding insurance market.)

“From an objective perspective, [insurers] are not doing anything wrong,” Kocianski said. “From a moral perspective, and what this will do to insurers brands, it’s a very different question. Insurers don’t have a great reputation anyway. It’s going to be a huge issue for them.”

Ryan Griffiths, 25, from Northampton told Yahoo Finance UK: “Honestly, it just sounds like they’re just trying to get out of jail.”

Griffiths is another Debenhams policy holder who has had their claim denied. He and his fiancee stand to lose £10,000.

“Someone should be able to step in and say you should pay out,” Griffiths said. “You can’t just sit back and let it go. It’s the people that don’t fight that get screwed over.”

Carroll, the wedding planner, said many couples were taking their case to the Financial Ombudsman but she called for more wholesale action across the industry.

“I really think the government should look at this,” she said. “They’re throwing money left, right, and centre but the insurance companies are getting away with murder here.”

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