Steps and Resources to Recover Homeowner Insurance Benefits After a Fire: A Tip-Sheet for Homeowner / Small Business Insurance Claims

by Farella Braun + Martel LLP
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Before worrying about an insurance claim, first ensure that you and your family, including pets and extended family, have their immediate needs met, particularly medical needs. When you are ready to begin the recovery process, we have outlined a few steps for you to take in working with your insurers to ensure that you receive the maximum benefits under any applicable policies.

Step 1 – Locate Insurance Policies

It is very important that you understand the coverages provided by your insurance policy, so it is critical to have a complete copy of your policy, with all endorsements.

  • If your policy is lost/destroyed, contact your agent/broker or insurer.
  • If you can’t remember who the agent or insurer is, check bank/payment records. Your mortgage company may also have records.

Step II – Contact Your Insurer

Contact your broker or agent and let them know the details of your specific situation. They are there to help you. If you don’t have a broker or agent, contact your insurer directly.

  • Ask your insurer for an advance to cover living expenses, to replace necessities – clothes, food, medical supplies, etc. and for the cost to board up/fence your property to prevent vandalism. Your insurance agent may be able to make this request for you.
  • You’re entitled to alternative living expenses if your house (or part of your house) is uninhabitable and for costs to secure your property. The cost of debris removal should also be covered.

Under voluntary guidelines signed by a number of insurers following the 2015 California wildfires, an immediate advance of four months additional living expense payment and 25% of the policy limits for personal items and contents should be made available to you, upon request. At this time it’s uncertain whether that agreement is in force, but ask your insurer for these advances regardless.

Step III – Documenting Your Loss

Make notes as you remember the contents and possessions that you’ve lost. Make lists and collect photographs. The United Policyholders website has a very comprehensive list of typical home contents, as does the California Department of Insurance.

  • Don’t sign anything that indicates it’s the full amount of your claim. It could be many weeks or months before you remember everything that you had.
  • Don’t worry about trying to value items at this stage. Final valuations will be worked out later.
  • Keep receipts for everything you buy and what you spend on living and emergency repair expenses. Get approvals in advance from the insurer for major expenditures.
  • Keep track of how much the insurance company gives you and what it’s for.

Remember – you want to help your insurance company give you money and understand that the insurance company needs to account for the money it gives out. Work with the adjuster as much as you can. However, you also want to make sure you get the full benefits due.

Important Information About Insurance

If you have a complicated claim for some reason (e.g., unusual possessions, high values), or if you have doubts about whether you’re being offered the right amount by your insurer, engage professional help sooner rather than later.

Homeowner’s insurance policies can include a number of different coverages in addition to the dwelling itself – including coverage for other structures, additional living expense, contents, landscaping, code upgrade coverage, debris removal coverage and fine arts or jewelry coverage. Numerous issues can arise, such as negotiating an accurate rebuilding cost of your property; deciding whether to rebuild or “cash out” and the position of any mortgage holders in both cases; the terms and conditions of rebuilding; documenting additional living expenses; proving rental value if the property was held for rental; valuation issues for unusual personal property, and so on. If you have a business, all these issues can arise plus others – in particular the challenges of business interruption insurance can be very complicated, as can different methods to value stock.

Employing a firm with expertise in these areas can be invaluable, as is engaging such a specialist early in the process. It takes a lot more work to get a complicated claim back on track than to start off on the right foot.

Online resources:

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Farella Braun + Martel LLP | Attorney Advertising

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