Which? has reported a leading insurance company - UK General Insurance - to the financial regulator after a bride-to-be helped expose the dubious tactics it was using to deny claims for coronavirus wedding cancellations.
When the coronavirus lockdown for couples across the UK, many - facing excruciating losses - turned towards their wedding insurers. Unfortunately, for some customers of UK General Insurance, which sold policies through Debenhams, Dreamsaver and WeddingPlan, this was where the disillusionment really set in.
Internal emails among its own employees suggest the insurance firm widely misled policyholders with advice that was 'contradictory to say the least' - and could be exploiting ambiguities in its small print to duck promises made about its cover.
UK General Insurance is an insurance distributor backed by German insurer Great Lakes - which creates and underwrites wedding insurance for other companies, while also trading directly as WeddingPlan. While Great Lakes makes the final call on whether to pay claims, UK General sells and administers the cover.
Here, Which? gives accounts of some of its customers who have contacted Which? Money since having claims declined. They've reported having crucial details of claims apparently being ignored, and battling both implausible accusations and an exhausting - sometimes incoherent - claims process.
Which? Money has reported UK General Insurance to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), but for couples still struggling with their wedding insurer, we also have advice on how to fight an unfairly dismissed claim.
Lidia Szmid and her fiance Adam Burton (pictured above) were WeddingPlan customers and had to turn to their cover when lockdown forced their venue to close.
In April, they were crestfallen to learn it wouldn't pay their claim of almost £10,000.
Unsatisfied with the reasoning it gave, Lidia complained and submitted a Subject Access Request (SAR) - a legal right - for information UK General Insurance held about her. The firm returned a series of internal emails from between April and May, which Lidia has shared with Which? Money.
In March, UK General Insurance advised customers directly and via its websites that it covered cancellations arising from outbreaks of disease or venue closures by a 'relevant authority'. Lidia purchased her policy in early March after receiving written reassurance from WeddingPlan staff that this included the government closing down the venue.
Online advice (see below) provided by WeddingPlan as late as 20 March backed this impression, suggesting - prior to the lockdown - that claims because of government closures would be covered.
Unmentioned were clauses in the T&Cs stating that claims aren't covered if related to 'government regulations or acts' or 'prohibitive regulations'. However, it's ambiguous whether or how these should apply.
Neither of the terms nor 'relevant authority', are given definitions in the policy wording. This leaves it unclear whether the government could be considered a 'relevant authority' if it closed venues, as happened during the lockdown - making claims valid - or whether the exclusions should take precedence.
For a time, the answer was apparently undecided even for UK General Insurance. Despite implying it covered lockdown cancellations in March, the company changed its tune as customers began claiming.
'Insurers', one employee notes in an email from April, 'have since [confirming Lidia's cover] taken a stance that the exclusion applies'.
The emails Which? Money has seen indicate that UK General Insurance's customers - some facing five-figure losses - unsurprisingly haven't taken its decision well. One employee's email summarises 'lots' of customer queries 'saying 'you are changing the goalposts', 'this is disgusting' and 'how can you tell me one thing and now another'. The employee goes on to say 'I honestly do not know what to tell these customers'.
Another employee admits messages given to 'all clients' were 'contradictory to say the least', but advises UK General Insurance's adopted position is one 'we need to stand by' - although it anticipates complaints 'undoubtedly' going to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS).
A revised stance on its cover wasn't the only basis used to decline claims. More recent customers - including Lidia and Adam, and two other couples we spoke with - were also accused of purchasing cover anticipating a likely claim.
The way this allegation was worded suggests it was levelled at policyholders who had bought insurance on or after 3 March - when the government's 'Coronavirus Action Plan' was published.
An excerpt from Lidia's rejection letter reads:
The evidence apparently supporting the accusation is shockingly thin. The severity of the epidemic - and publicly available information about how it would affect the UK - changed dramatically over very short periods of time. The cited 28-page 'Action Plan' from 3 March actually gives no information about the likelihood of a lockdown happening and says nothing specifically about weddings.
The path UK General Insurance took wasn't travelled by all insurance companies. Rival firm John Lewis - underwritten by RSA, but with almost identical applicable T&Cs when it comes to government-caused cancellations - determined lockdown claims are covered and says it's honouring them where customers can't get a refund from the venue.
Like UK General Insurance's wording, John Lewis' policy covers against outbreaks of 'infectious or contagious disease' and 'closure of the venue by the relevant authority', while stating it won't cover a 'government regulation or act'.
Which? Money understands that RSA's decision to accept claims was influenced by recent issued by the FOS to businesses. The guidance recommends that wedding insurers consider whether government acts or regulations are defined in their policies, and whether it's clear how they would relate to an epidemic.
By 19 March, it was looking as if Dan Clark's and Claire Birchett's wedding, planned for May, might not proceed. The most pressing reason was that Claire's grandmother wouldn't be able to attend. Because of underlying health conditions, her doctor had advised her, in writing, to self-isolate.
The couple contacted WeddingPlan and were relieved to be reassured that this contingency was covered. It was also clearly addressed (and confirmed) in the FAQs section of the website. This gave them the confidence to rearrange their marriage plans and put in a claim. Five months later they were still fighting for their payout.
Getting hold of someone in order to make their claim proved their first major hurdle. This took almost a month, and multiple attempted calls before they gave up on the telephone number WeddingPlan listed and instead tried UK General Insurance directly. The adviser they spoke to reiterated that they should be covered and recommended they contact the claims company directly to lodge their claim, which they did.
They were disheartened to be told by phone in early May that their claim had been rejected. They had to wait more than a fortnight longer to be told why. The formal rejection email - which took them two phone calls and approximately two hours waiting on hold, to have issued to them - stated that the insurer considered their claim linked to a government act and therefore excluded.
This didn't make sense. They had cancelled their wedding ahead of the lockdown and were claiming because of the state of health of a relative. In June, they registered a complaint and in late July were offered £100 compensation for the communications delays they've experienced.
They're now waiting to see what comes of their appeal decision before going to the FOS.
For Karen Murphy, hearing (the week after she'd planned to marry her fiance) that their insurer wouldn't be paying their claim - was just the beginning of a surreal and distressing process.
The wedding venue had cancelled in late March and retained 80% - around £16,000 - of their payment. In May, she learned that her Platinum-level Debenhams policy was apparently worthless because of the government act exclusion. It was horrendous news, but she came to terms with it.
Then things took a turn. Karen has retained contact with other Debenhams policyholders and heard in June that some of its claims decisions were being reassessed.
She contacted UK General Insurance to see if her claim stood a chance. The claims handler seemed optimistic. He advised that claims were being re-evaluated where the cancellation had happened prior to 21 March - and that hers 'ticked all the right boxes'.
Days later, she received an email from a different claims handler, who said her claim wasn't being accepted. Apparently, the email from the wedding venue which she had provided to UK General Insurance contained 'no evidence' that the wedding had been cancelled before 23 March.
While it was true that the venue had emailed Karen on 23 March, the email stated the venue was cancelling all weddings between 20 March and 20 June - implicitly suggesting it had closed its doors prior to the 20th.
Unable to make sense of the insurer's verdict, she contacted the initial claims handler - who seemed to agree with her. The dates in her email, he said, were a 'crucial' part of her case. He advised her to 'ignore' the other claims handler's statement - which he promised would be reconsidered.
Shortly after this, the second claims handler emailed back. The position remained unchanged. The email advised they'd seen correspondence from other customers of the venue company - which they felt showed it intended to proceed with Karen's ceremony up until 23 March. Given the amount hinging on their decision, they seemed surprisingly uninterested in any further evidence about her specific case. Furthermore, she was told, the first claims handler was no longer working at the firm.
Karen, whose hopes were effectively dashed three times, has complained - aggrieved by the insurer's insensitive treatment and still unclear as to exactly why it won't pay.
Almost all of the couples we spoke with had their claims declined, in part, because of the government acts exclusion. Some, however, had to cancel their weddings for reasons other than government intervention - reasons that they feel weren't properly considered.
Three couples we spoke with would have had to postpone their weddings even if their venues hadn't closed - as close relatives were medically unable to attend.
With others, a point of contention is when, specifically, the venue closed - whether this was forced by the government lockdown or whether the venue independently cancelled bookings in the days before.
As well as navigating confusing advice and debatable reasoning, some customers also reported exhausting lags in communications as well as mixed messaging regarding the progress of their claims.
Over the past few months, UK General Insurance's customers have vigorously protested its stance - complaining to the FOS and also taking their stories to the press.
UK General Insurance told Which? Money in June that it has been re-reviewing some claims - but as of August, customers are still struggling to progress complaints.
In issuing misleading advice, and in relying on unclear terms and conditions to reject what may be large numbers of claims, we think UK General Insurance and Great Lakes have been treating its customers in bad faith. We've reported UK General Insurance to the Financial Conduct Authority.
Of the seven couples we've spoken with, one (Lidia and Adam) have so far managed to get the insurer to pay their claim - around five months after it was made.
Jenny Ross, Which? Money editor, said: 'The persistence of one bride who refused to be given the brush-off by a big insurance company produced a damning dossier of evidence exposing how the firm exploited unclear terms and conditions to avoid paying out on claims.
'Our research suggests that a pattern of UK General Insurance acting in bad faith to turn down claims, which is why we believe the financial regulator must investigate and take tough action if the firm is found to have broken the rules.'
A UK General Insurance spokesperson told us that UK General Insurance is a distributor - not the insurer - and doesn't have the final say on whether a claim is paid. This decision, it says, rests with Great Lakes - the German insurer which backs UK General Insurance.
In response to our findings and criticisms, UK General Insurance and Great Lakes provided the statement below, with Great Lakes adding no further comment:
'We'd like to express our sympathy to those individuals and their families who have been affected by this unprecedented pandemic, including those whose weddings have been impacted. We acknowledge and regret the lack of clarity in some of the FAQs Relating to Coronavirus (COVID-19) posted on our websites, but we have subsequently thoroughly reviewed the coverage position in respect of claims for wedding cancellations arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, and have republished FAQs and will continue to monitor these as the situation develops.
'We are committed to treating all our customers fairly, while also ensuring that claims are handled properly in line with the terms and conditions of the insurance policy.
'We are monitoring the UK Government's Health Protection Regulations 2020 (as amended) and the restrictions these may impose on customers' scheduled weddings. In addition, we have adapted our approach to assessing claims to reflect additional coronavirus guidance which has been published by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Financial Ombudsman Service, and we are regularly reviewing how our wedding insurance policies should respond in the current external environment.
'We are always looking to improve the experience our customers receive and we appreciate feedback such as the comments in this article, which we will learn from.'
According to a report by wedding planning website Bridebook, couples paid £16,005, on average, for weddings in 2019. In other words, most of us couldn't afford to chalk up to experience the amounts on the line when claiming for cancellation.
If your venue or suppliers are refusing to refund you against their T&Cs, look at alternative ways of recouping your money. Insurers will probably ask if you've done this prior to claiming.
If you're confronted with confusing advice, don't be put off claiming with your insurer.
Check the terms of your policy wording. Unless it's clear that you're not covered, you should claim. If the insurer rejects it, you should at least receive a written explanation as to why they think you're not covered, setting out which parts of the policy wording have led them to this conclusion.
If you disagree with - or don't understand - why the insurer has declined your claim, make a complaint, explaining your point of view and providing any supporting evidence you have. This will prompt them to review their decision.
If you've been given misleading advice, see if you can get evidence.
In some cases, a Subject Access Request (SAR) can help - for example, for recordings of calls you've had with them or emails about your case. Companies are obliged to turn over any information they have about you if you request it.
In June, UK General Insurance told Which? Money it was re-reviewing some cases based on specific circumstances. If, beforehand, you had a claim rejected, contact them to see if this applies to you.
If the insurer doesn't satisfactorily resolve your complaint, go to the Financial Ombudsman Service. There's no guarantee it will find in your favour, but the service is free to use and doesn't legally prevent you from pursuing other alternatives. If the FOS does uphold your complaint, the insurer has to do what it says.
As of late July, the FOS was handling around 40 cases involving wedding insurers that were related to COVID-19 (we don't know what proportion involve UK General Insurance).