Reviewed by Stefan Tirschler
Updated May 30, 2023
mis·rep·re·sen·ta·tion | (ˌ)mis-ˌre-pri-ˌzen-ˈtā-shən
Definition: A false statement of fact.
Lying on an insurance application is an act of misrepresentation.
Misrepresentation is supplying false information, whether intentional or by accident.
When it comes to insurance, misrepresentation most commonly refers to providing false information on an insurance application or failing to inform one’s insurance provider when important information changes. Withholding essential information when asked for it is considered misrepresentation as well.
Misrepresentation falls into two broad categories: innocent misrepresentation and willful misrepresentation.
Innocent misrepresentation is when someone provides false information that they genuinely believe to be true; basically, they make a mistake.
Similarly, there’s negligent misrepresentation. It’s still an instance of someone providing false information that they think is true, but with the added wrinkle that they had a responsibility to verify the information and they didn’t. A lot of information on a home insurance policy could fall under this category.
Willful misrepresentation is supplying false information on purpose—lying or withholding important information. There are many reasons someone might be tempted to lie on an insurance application: getting lower premiums, getting better coverage, or getting coverage at all.
Whether intentional or not, misrepresentation can have consequences for an insurance policyholder.
Roger is a homeowner who recently added a rental suite to his basement. Now he’s renting it out to a friend.
It’s also time for his annual home insurance renewal, and he’s taking the opportunity to shop around. He finds one insurance provider that’s a lot cheaper, so he decides to make the switch.
While he’s filling out the policy application, he needs to answer a question about whether he’s renting any parts of his home out to others.
Roger’s fairly sure that answering “yes” will mean he has to pay higher premiums, and he’s only renting to a close friend… how big a deal can that be? He decides to answer “no” instead.
In this example, Roger isn’t necessarily doing something malicious; he just wants to save a little money. But he’s still misrepresenting the occupancy of his home to the insurance provider.
Theoretically, Roger might get away with it completely. After all, if he’s buying home insurance online, it’s unlikely that anyone from the insurance company ever visits his house.
But, if Roger ever makes a claim, it’s much more likely that someone will drop by, and then he might have some issues. Given that the purpose of insurance is being able to make claims, that’s a problem.
Of course, not all misrepresentation is the same.
Sometimes it’s just too small to matter; an insurance company wouldn’t penalize their customer for misspelling their middle name on an application, for example.
But in Roger’s case, the insurance provider may consider his false information to be material misrepresentation.
In insurance, material misrepresentation is when false information is particularly important—so important that, without it, the insurance provider would not be able to properly assess the property and charge the right premium.
So, while the spelling of the insured’s middle name probably isn’t a risk assessment factor, the home’s occupancy certainly is.
In Roger’s example above, he’s claiming that his house is occupied only by him (the owner). As far as occupancy categories go, that’s one of the most favourable to insurance providers. After all, who takes better care of a home than the person that owns it?
But the reality is that Roger also has an unrelated tenant paying rent to live in his home, which most insurance providers consider higher risk—because of the increased number of plumbing fixtures, kitchens and people in the home. That means they would likely have charged higher premiums. Or, if they were unusually cautious, they might have declined to offer a policy at all—maybe they just don’t like to insure multi-suite homes.
Either way, the insurer considered the home’s occupancy to be a material fact. It was information they needed to decide if they were going to insure the home, and how much it would cost to do so.
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If an insurance provider finds that one of their customers has misrepresented something, they have several options. Which they choose depends on the nature of the misrepresentation.
Aside from sounding like a wizard spell, “void ab initio” means the policy was invalid from the very beginning, and the insured never had coverage under it (not to mention they don’t have coverage going forward). In other words, if someone obtained a policy by providing false information, then the policy never existed, and they had no right to any of its protection.
Obviously, that’s an extreme option. Most companies would rather have a customer than not have a customer, so they’re only going to utilize options 2 or 3 when it’s necessary.
Looking for another insurance definition? Look it up in The Insurance Glossary, home to dozens of easy-to-follow definitions for the most common insurance terms. Or, get an online quote in under 5 minutes and find out how affordable personalized home insurance can be.
About the expert: Stefan Tirschler
Stefan is responsible for underwriting leadership, market expansion, and product research and development for Square One's operations. Stefan has earned his Fellow Chartered Insurance Professional designation, and maintains a level 2 general insurance license in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. Stefan is also an Education Committee member and CIP/GIE instructor for the Insurance Institute of Canada.
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