Preparing for and recovering from a house fire: a legal perspective

Every summer we watch wildfires in the western United States with grim fascination. This summer has turned out to be as bad as any other. Fires in Colorado and other states have consumed both wasteland and homes with equal ferocity. You may be wondering, “What would I do if I lost my home to a fire? Would I be prepared?”

Others have said it before, and I’ll say it again: when disaster strikes, the time to prepare is over. The best way to recover from a house fire is to prepare for a house fire in advance. In addition to security considerations, there are some legal issues to consider. Consider including the following in your preparations:

– Have adequate fire insurance for your home and belongings and meet with your insurance agent at least annually to ensure that all coverage limits are sufficient to provide meaningful protection in the event that your home needs to be replaced or repaired. You should get an estimate of your home’s replacement cost from an appraiser or reputable contractor and make sure your policy covers 100 percent of the estimated replacement cost. Recognize that replacement costs are not the same as the current fair market value, purchase price or outstanding balance of your mortgage. Contact your lawyer or insurance agent if you need help understanding your policy coverage.

– Meet with your lawyer regularly to ensure your estate planning documents are up to date. Your family’s wills, trusts, powers of attorney, living trusts, or medical directives can become critical in the aftermath of a fire.

– Identify important family items, such as identity papers, estate planning documents, insurance documents, official certificates, original deeds and titles, family heirlooms, family photos, diaries and scrapbooks. Make a plan to protect these items in the event of a disaster, through the use of a safe, fireproof safe, external storage, etc. Prioritize which limited items to take with you in the event of an evacuation. Often your lawyer will be willing to store copies of important documents or small items for you.

– Consider using an online cloud storage service such as Dropbox or Evernote to store scans of important legal documents or papers and copies of important electronic files. Consider using an online backup service such as Mozy or CrashPlan to preserve the important contents of your computer’s hard drives.

– Document all valuables with photos and video. Keep all serial numbers in a safe place and notify your insurance agent so they can be added to your homeowner’s policy.

Even if you are fully prepared for a fire, such a loss can still be devastating. What do you do after your house burns down? You can avoid legal problems or additional losses by considering the following immediately afterwards:

– Make arrangements to ensure that your family’s immediate needs for shelter, food, clothing, medicine, and other necessities are met. Possible sources of support include extended family and friends, your local church, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army. In the event of large-scale evacuations, government officials may be able to inform you of specific emergency resources provided by public agencies or charities.

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– Contact your insurance agent or company and report the damage. You should also contact at least the following to report the fire, if applicable: your mortgage company, your employer, your child’s school, the post office, and the utilities. Contact your attorney if you need important papers replaced from their files, if you have trouble getting your insurer to respond to your claim, or if any other legal issues arise.

– Follow the instructions of the local safety officials regarding the location of the fire. Do not re-enter your home or turn on utilities again without instructions from public safety officials. If you have been evacuated, do not return until you have been cleared to do so by the appropriate officials.

– Do your best to secure the area before leaving it unattended, including sealing broken windows and locking doors and gates where possible. “No Trespassing” or similar signage is also recommended. Notify the local police if you must leave the premises unattended.

– Try to locate and secure all essential documents or property that survived the fire as quickly as possible, for example in a fireproof safe.

– Keep all receipts of all the money you spend. Receipts provide documentation of your losses for both your insurer and the IRS.

– Do not dispose of damaged property until properly inventoried to document your loss. Before contracting for a disaster recovery service, you should first check with your insurer to ensure you meet all the requirements for such costs to be covered by your policy. Document the time you and your family members spend on salvage and inventory work – much of your time may also be reimbursed at rates agreed with your insurer.

Losing your home is a devastating event, but preparing ahead of time and making the right decisions afterwards can help you and your family recover. Additional information and tips on preparing for and recovering from a residential fire can be found at http://www.redcross.org, http://www.usfa.fema.gov, and other resources.