February 6, 2013
By Rita Colorito, InsWeb.com
Fans of the wildly popular British soap opera “Downton Abbey” might imagine what it would be like to live in that privileged world and its fabulous homes. But the intricacies of insuring such an estate would leave even the Dowager Countess – the show’s outspoken matriarch – speechless.
The following insurance policies could save the Grantham family, Downton’s proprietors, from financial ruin.
Historic-home replacement coverage
Built in the 1800s and modeled after the Houses of Parliament, Downton Abbey’s real-life setting, Highclere Castle, could fetch about $239 million in today’s real estate market. From the hand-carved oak staircase to the filigreed stone pinnacles, Highclere would require skilled artisans and craftsmen to rebuild it.
“Many policies will not actually cover the cost of repairing a historic home with the same type of materials and craftsmanship,” says Tom Mayes, deputy general counsel of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “It’s a big difference in expense.”
Christie Alderman is vice president of Chubb Personal Insurance, one of a handful of insurers that insures high-dollar estates. “We sometimes see very sharp differences between the real estate value and the replacement value,” Alderman says.
Chubb’s robust homeowner’s insurance policy includes on-site appraisals to determine historic replacement-cost value.
“We would send out our appraisers to the home to come up with a calculated value that we would recommend to the homeowner. They would choose their insurance coverage based on that,” Alderman says.
Since the debut season, the main plot of “Downton Abbey” (which airs on PBS in the U.S.) has revolved around determining the estate’s rightful heirs. For an estate that’s 450 years old (the current castle was built over several other prestigious homes), title insurance might come in handy.
The title insurance company would research the line of inheritance, as well as any liens on the estate, to determine clear ownership rights.
“Title insurance is very valuable for properties like Highclere because anything that’s historic is going to have a lot of claims of fraud made on it,” says Michelle Korsmo, CEO of the American Land Title Association. “An owner’s title insurance policy would protect that owner against all of those claims.” A title company pays for the legal costs associated with fighting those claims.
In Season 1, cousin Matthew Crawley is identified as Downton’s next-in-line male heir. But an unrecognizably disfigured supposed relative, who somehow escaped the Titanic, shows up in Season 2. While this “cousin” doesn’t forcefully claim inheritance, he would supersede Matthew in line, and the Granthams cannot prove or disprove his identity.
“If Lord Grantham had had an owner’s title insurance policy, there would be no Season 2 or Season 3, because there would be no question about Matthew’s potential ownership rights,” Korsmo says.
Fortunately for faithful viewers, Lord Grantham has proven to be a blundering estate manager.
A living museum
Contents usually are covered at half the home’s insured value, but that may not be enough for Highclere’s interior opulence. The library where the fictional Granthams “withdraw” contains about 5,650 books, some from the 16th century. Paintings by Van Dyck and other masters adorn the walls of the state dining room.
It makes financial sense buy additional content coverage, Alderman says, or obtain separate appraisals for and schedule such special items on your homeowner’s policy.
By getting additional coverage, “if anything ever happens to that item, you’d automatically know how much you’d get paid for it,” Alderman says.
Grounds of the estate
Additional structures often exceed the coverage already included in even a high-value policy. The 1,000-acre Highclere estate includes guest homes and equestrian stables.
When heir Matthew Crawley and his mother come to Downton, they stay in what amounts to a mini-mansion. Alderman says this property should be considered separately from an insurance standpoint.
Don’t overlook the beautiful landscaping and formal gardens, which also can be insured. Chubb provides coverage of $10,000 per tree, for instance.
If you had an alley of 100-year-old trees leading up to your estate, you’d want them to be covered. “You don’t want to replace (a lost tree) with a sapling,” Alderman says.
Formal dinner parties, pheasant hunting outings, a Turkish diplomat who dies in Lady Mary’s bed – all of these houseguests leave the Granthams vulnerable to litigation.
“A large display of wealth like that makes them more of a target for opportunistic lawsuits as well,” says Alderman, who recommends a hefty homeowner’s liability policy.
Whenever you invite guests onto your property, your level of risk goes up. A liability policy protects a homeowner’s assets in the event someone gets injured while on their property. Alderman says property owners in these circumstances typically buy extra liability coverage, up to a limit of $10 million.
The house staff
Footmen, maids, cooks – these are just some of the staff who help run the 50-plus-bedroom castle and assist family members with several changes of clothes daily. “Downton Abbey” takes place during Edwardian times, when Highclere Castle itself employed about 60 house staffers.
The Granthams feel a deep responsibility to their staff, paying for treatment to restore eyesight to Mrs. Patmore, the cook, and telling Mrs. Hughes she may remain at Downton and be looked after for life — health care that would cost a small fortune today.
Providing employee health insurance, either a group plan or high-deductible plan, makes more financial sense than paying out of pocket, says Guy Maddalone, founder and CEO of GTM Payroll Services. “If they provide preventive care, like vision insurance, it could save employers money in the long run,” he says.
Workers’ compensation insurance would pay for wages lost and medical care as a result of an on-the-job injury. “From an employer perspective, it protects them from any personal liability from something that may have happened in their home while somebody was employed,” Maddalone says.
Estate owners might want to consider employment practices liability insurance, which protects against employment discrimination claims, wrongful termination, sexual harassment and other employment-related allegations. This might cover the almost-affair between Lord Grantham and the housemaid Jane (who left Downton of her own accord).
So while it may ease our envy on Sunday nights to know the financial woes of the landed gentry, we shouldn’t let it spoil our fun, Alderman says. “For the fans of ‘Downton Abbey,’ don’t let the real-life challenges of caring for an estate ruin your fantasy of sipping tea in a fabulous library,” she says.