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Precious Commodities

The dangerous intersection of greed, insurance, and children's lives.

Key points

  • In August 2017, Joaquin Rams was convicted of murdering his 15-month-old-son, Prince, to collect on his life insurance.
  • The Rams case highlighted the ease with which parents can access thousands of dollars in life insurance coverage on children with few safeguards.
  • Cases of child homicide where life insurance is a motive for murder are relatively rare.

On July 26, 2021, I finally got an answer to a question I’ve pondered ever since I’ve read my first story about someone murdered for life insurance money: Can you take a life insurance policy on someone without them even knowing?

Sadly, I’ve read dozens of sad and sordid tales of betrayal and greed, often by the people the victims loved and trusted most. Few things surprise me these days. But I will never get used to stories of a parent who takes a life insurance policy out on their child, callously kills them, and cashes in.

Here’s one tragic tale. In August 2017, Joaquin Rams of Manassas, Virginia was convicted of murdering his 15-month-old-son, Prince, to collect on his life insurance. The cause of death is still unclear; the defense says Prince died from a febrile seizure, the prosecution says Rams murdered him by either suffocating him or—more likely—drowning him. Rams had allegedly taken out more than $500,000 in life insurance on Prince in the months before his death; what toddler needs that?

Prince Williams County mugshot
Source: Prince Williams County mugshot

Prince’s biological mother had no idea about the insurance policies on her son’s life. While the insurance agency obviously did, they were also misled. Rams reportedly lied to MassMutual about a number of things; he stated that his toddler son lived with him and that his mother was dead. No death certificate was required.

He also lied about his salary (which he said was $200,000 but was actually $0) and his assets (which were none). In fact, he was in debt for over $60,000 at the time his son died. No tax returns or check stubs were ever asked for.

Two weeks before Prince died, Rams asked the real estate agent to take his house off the rental market because things were “looking up.” He told her he was planning to buy new appliances and furniture and was thinking about adding a deck, pool, and new paint. This was for a house that had been in foreclosure for three months and on which he owed back payments of over $50,000.

Easy Targets

The ease with which Prince’s father was able to obtain insurance on his infant son—essentially over the phone and despite shaky finances and a suspicious résumé—shows just how easy it is to insure a child’s life. It takes much less effort than getting a policy on an adult and there are fewer safeguards to protect them. And, unlike adults, parents can buy life insurance on a child younger than 15 without his or her signature. Theoretically, at least, a child could grow up to become an adult and never know s/he has a bounty on his or her head.

In 2017 and 2018, a series of opinion pieces in The Washington Post sounded the alarm on what they described as “an industry that bets children’s lives for an easy profit.” They noted: “The apparent ease with which the killers were able to obtain policies shows that sufficient safeguards are not in place. Particularly worrisome—actually, horrifying—are the instances in which, with little or no scrutiny, hundreds of thousands of dollars of insurance is obtained on the lives of young and very vulnerable children.”

These criticisms are nothing new. In the late 1800s, along with the proliferation of child life insurance policies (80% of insurable children were covered by some form of life insurance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) came dire warnings of their potential for abuse. According to one judge in an 1891 New York Times editorial, “Oftentimes, it would be a much more correct definition of these so-called life insurance societies to say that they are death insurance societies which insure children, which seem to be instituted for the destruction of children and the perpetuation of murder.” However, bills to ban insurance on the life of children, reduce the insurance amount, or to require benefits be paid directly to undertakers failed.

As of now, each state sets its own insurance regulations and only a few (New York, Washington, D.C.) have put in place any rules to safeguard children. Oversight can be spotty. And the ability to purchase insurance online adds a whole other opportunity for someone with an evil intent to fall through the cracks.

Murder as a Money-Making Career

One area where have made progress is in catching parents like Joaquim Rams. Actual cases of child homicide where life insurance is a motive for murder are relatively rare. Parents who commit these kinds of crimes often get caught by their greed or their impatience. For example, they kill a child shortly after insuring his or her life for thousands of dollars or, like Joaquim Rams, they hint at an expected financial windfall shortly before a child’s death.

A frightening commonality among parents who murder a child for money is a previous history of life insurance fraud—sometimes involving murder. Prosecutors believe Rams is also responsible for the deaths of his ex-girlfriend, Shawn Mason, and his mother, Alma Collins. In Mason’s death, prosecutors say Rams believed he would be the beneficiary of a life insurance policy. In Collins’ death, Rams did in fact collect $162,000. In the 1980s, Dr. Dale Cavaness faked the accidental death of two of his adult sons—seven years apart—and collected benefits on life insurance policies he had purchased shortly before their deaths. Marie Crabtree is currently awaiting trial in Australia, accused of faking the suicide of two of her disabled children five years apart and collecting $1,000,000 in life insurance payouts.

If no one suffers an economic loss as a result of someone’s death, there is no need for life insurance. While the emotional impact of a child’s death is immeasurable, the financial loss is generally small. In addition, the rationales insurance companies usually give when selling juvenile life insurance don’t really make sense; there are better ways to save money for college, it’s a poor investment, and it doesn’t guarantee you can buy more life insurance at a reasonable rate later.

While the emotional cost of a child's death is incalculable, the financial loss is typically small. As such, it’s hard to see why a parent would insure a child for astronomical amounts of cash. I know the vast majority of parents wouldn’t trade a child’s life for his/her weight in gold. But for the very few who would, why make it possible?

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