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Frozen in time: How life insurance can make you immortal

Since his teenage years in rural Minnesota, when he built a $500-a-week slot machine business financed from money he made trapping and selling mink and muskrat, Nevada casino-resort owner Don Laughlin has always lived large. At 79, he still tools around in his helicopter, surveying the town 100 miles south of Las Vegas named for him after he bought a local bankrupt saloon and motel that he built into the multimillion-dollar Riverside Casino Resort, which now attracts some 3 million visitors a year.

Many millionaires Laughlin's age spend time contemplating a life well lived and preparing for their day of reckoning. But not Laughlin. Not now and perhaps not ever.

cryogenicsInstead, he is one of almost 1,800 people around the world who has made arrangements upon his "legal death" to be cryogenically preserved, with plans to be resuscitated when modern medicine  advances enough to treat whatever killed him. To support his "better-than-average" chance at one day being revived from a cryonic suspension, Laughlin says he's arranged for a portion of his estate to be placed in a trust designed to support him when he's revived.

"If you had said 100 years ago that millions of people would be flying around the world in airplanes, they probably would have tied you up at the stake and burned you," Laughlin says from his office at the 1,405-room casino and entertainment complex overlooking the Colorado River, where he still works most days. "Growing up on a farm in Minnesota, every year a lot of people would die of polio, scarlet fever and all of these different diseases. Then penicillin came along and eliminated a lot of them. Who's to say there won't be medical advances in the future that cure some of the diseases people die of today?

"It's a controversial subject, but it's better to have one chance than no chance at all," he theorizes.

Science or science fiction?

Many cryonicists trace the idea that people can be "frozen" and later brought back to life to the 1964 book The Prospect of Immortality, written by Robert Ettinger, a physics teacher, science fiction devotee and founder of one of two U.S. cryogenics facilities operating today, the Cryonics Institute (CI) in Clinton Township, Mich., according to the CI website. The word "cryogenics" is derived from the Greek words "kryos," which means cold or freezing, and "genes," meaning "born" or "one that is produced."

The 73-year-old psychologist James Bedford was the first person to be cryogenically preserved in 1967 upon his legal death (a distinction cryonicists make from "biological death"), according to the Web site of Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz., the other U.S. cryonics facility. Bedford's body is still housed there.

The process of cryopreservation ideally begins within minutes of death. Blood circulation and breathing are artificially restored to the body, much in the same way doctors do during a heart transplant, ostensibly to protect the brain from deterioration because of a lack of oxygen. The body is then quickly transported to CI or Alcor. Once there, the body -- or in the case of neurocryopreservation, only the head -- is prepared to be cooled to negative 320 degrees Fahrenheit and stored in liquid nitrogen contained in fiberglass or large stainless steel vacuum-insulated containers. They are kept until the day "re-animation" is possible.

A total of 185 human bodies or heads and 100 pets are currently stored at Alcor and CI, according to statistics maintained on the CI website. As of Dec. 31, 2009, another 1,746 people are dues-paying members of the organizations, many of whom have made arrangements to have life insurance policies or trusts pay the tab for their cryopreservation and ultimate revival.

While "there are some fairly well-known people who are not public with their cryonics arrangement," says Rudi Hoffman, a 53-year-old cryonicist and certified financial planner, those who have been preserved include baseball legend Ted Williams and Dick Clair, creator of the Emmy award-winning NBC TV show Facts of Life, which aired throughout most of the 1980s. Contrary to a popular urban myth, Walt Disney was not cryogenically preserved, the Alcor site also notes.

Edward O. Thorp, a mathematician and hedge fund industry pioneer in his late 70s, has also created a multimillion-dollar trust to support himself should he be re-animated after his planned cryopreservation, The Wall Street Journal has reported. (Contacted by e-mail for this report, Thorp replied he did not have time to discuss his cryonics-related estate planning because of a family medical issue.)

Although the erroneous image "of a Frankenstein coming out of a tank behind a walled mansion" persists, "the technology is actually a lot farther along than most people think," said Hoffman, whose Port Orange, Fla., firm has sold whole life insurance policies to about 1,000 policyholders who want to fund their cryonic suspension with life insurance proceeds. "A lot of scientists and skeptics who have been waiting on the sidelines are now looking at this seriously and getting their life insurance in place."

Typical cryonicist: Male, intelligent, but not necessarily wealthy

The "average cryonicist is male with an extremely high intelligence level, and is often a mathematician or computer engineer," Hoffman says. John Dedon, a principal in the trust, estate and tax planning practice of Washington, D.C.-area law firm Odin, Feldman and Pittleman, agrees that his cryogenic clients are smart and accomplished. "There's a somewhat limited audience, but the ones I've worked with are incredibly successful and bright," he says, adding that he's designed trusts for six to eight cryonicists. "I wish I had a hundred more of them."

In addition to sometimes macabre misnomers, "one of the myths about cryonics is that it's only for wealthy weird dudes," Hoffman said. "Through the magic of life insurance, it's also available to non-wealthy weird dudes," he adds, with a self-deprecating laugh.

Hoffman, who's completing a book to be titled The Affordable Immortal, says, "For the price of a cup of coffee every day, you can have the possibility of seeing the year 3000."

Alcor charges $150,000 for whole-body cryopreservation or $80,000 for neurocryopreservation, with surcharges for members outside of the United States and Canada or for "last minute, non-member cryopreservations." But Hoffman says he usually sells life insurance policies to cover costs totaling $250,000 to also pay for transportation costs to the Arizona or Michigan facility and the likely increase in cost over time in cryogenic procedure and preservation. He then often works with clients to secure and invest assets they will live on in the event of re-animation.

Estate planning raises interesting questions

While estate attorneys and planners often tackle thorny issues for their clients, few are as challenging as the issues raised by cryonicists.

cryogenics"We think of [cryogenics] as sort of a deep freeze, that an individual's body and mind come back intact, but the reality could be very different," says Thomas Katz, an estate planner at the law firm Katz Baskies, LLC, in Boca Raton, Fla. "For example, what if it's the same body, but there are no memories? Is that the same person? Or what if all the memories are intact in the very same brain, but you have a different body?"

Philosophical issues aside, Dedon says most individuals planning for cryogenics and a future revival should start with a typical "dynasty trust" that is legal in many states and which traditionally depends upon life insurance to either pay estate taxes, provide for survivors, or both.

"From a life insurance perspective, the proceeds, instead of providing for future generations, would provide for your cryogenics preservation or for you once you're revived," Dedon says. "From that perspective, life insurance may be an even more critical component" in estate planning for cryonicists.

Trusts can be longer, less vulnerable to challenge

Katz adds that in the past decade or so, the legally allowed period a trust may exist has been extended in many states, making it more likely that a cryonicist's trust could withstand legal challenge from heirs who think dad’s science fiction fantasies should take a backseat to their family's current financial needs. For example, Florida allows estates to establish trusts for as long as 360 years, while "many other jurisdictions allow trusts forever," he says. In one recent case, Katz designed a trust for a cryonicist who designated that a portion of his life insurance proceeds go to his wife and children, with the remainder going into a trust to support him upon revival. "If he has not come back in some fashion within 360 years, the trust proceeds will go to charity," Katz adds.

Still, not all variables are controllable. Two individuals who died in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks had plans to be cryopreserved, Hoffman says. In instances in which bodies are unrecovered or too damaged or decomposed to allow the procedure to take place, proceeds from life insurance policies or trusts go to a secondary beneficiary.

"Those of us who are cryonicists are very aware that there are many unknowns to overcome, but we believe deeply that it's a very rational, reasonable gamble," Hoffman says.

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