COBRA and Health Coverage – Qualifying Events

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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COBRA may not be the only medical insurance option available to you if your job ends for any reason other than gross misconduct. If you are married and your spouse is working with access to health insurance, your loss of insurance will be considered a Qualifying Life Event under your spouse’s insurance which gets you coverage under the plan, even though open enrollment period has passed. The transition is not seamless; you only have 30 days to make the change.

A health insurance plan that is subject to Section 125 of the IRS code, which represents the large majority of employer-sponsored health plans today, will have limits on when you can and cannot join the plan or add/subtract dependents. But one of those times is always going to be the loss of other coverage. Other qualifying events are birth, death, divorce, marriage and adoption; there may be others depending on the wording of your plan.

When a triggering event happens, the law provides a 30 day window for you to make the election changes. In most cases the election must be appropriate to the situation. For example, if you are adding a spouse to your health insurance company plan, you can only add him or her to the existing plans. You can’t use the opportunity to pick up the Vision care plan you opted out of during the last open enrollment period. You’ll have to wait for the next open enrollment for that. On the other hand, if your entire family was covered on your spouse’s plan and you are picking yours up for the first time, you can generally pick up whatever coverages you had with your spouse. If you lost medical, dental and vision coverages through your spouse, as long as all three plans are offered by your employer you should be able to pick all three up at the time of the qualifying event. Some exceptions may apply; you’ll want to be certain what you can and cannot add/subtract with your HR department.

You will have to provide proof (i.e. documents) of the qualifying event. If you’ve lost health coverage through yours or your spouse’s employer, you will need a letter from the employer or the carrier stating the date of the loss and which coverages were included. If the triggering event is a family status change, such as a marriage, death, divorce, or birth, you’ll need to provide the appropriate documentation (i.e, marriage certificate, death certificate). Note that in the case of a birth, you’ll want to get a copy of the hospital birth record; in most cases, by the time you get the actual birth certificate you’ll have missed the 30 day window, and the law does not make exceptions in that case. The birth record will be acceptable.

Other situations, such as moving in or out of the area covered by your plan, taking legal guardianship of a grandchild, niece, nephew or other relative, or occasional other situations, may be considered a qualifying event depending on how your plan is written. You’ll want to check in with your HR department well in advance, because the 30 day window will continue to apply.

Depending on both your state and your plan document, the above may also be available in the event of domestic partners. Again, you’ll want to check with HR as to whether this is the case for you and your plans; also whether same sex, opposite sex or both are covered.

You need to keep that 30 day window in mind. That is Federal law; not your employer being obstructionist. Some employers may have stretched it to 31; the occasional employer may make exceptions when it is clearly not your fault that the appropriate documentation was not available within the specified time. But for the most part, the window closes on the 31st day, and will not open again until the next open enrollment period.

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