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Preparing, recovering from a house fire: a legal perspective

Article Date: 
20 July, 2012 (All day)

By Matthew Ence, 
Snow Jensen & Reece
Each summer we watch with grim fascination as wildfires burn across the western United States. This summer has proved to be as bad as any.  Fires in Colorado and other states have consumed both wild lands and homes with equal ferocity.  You may wonder, “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 has passed.  The best way to recover from a home fire is to prepare for a home fire in advance.  Along with safety considerations, there are some legal-related issues to consider.  Think about including the following in your preparations:
- Maintain adequate fire hazard insurance on your home and belongings and meet at least annually with your insurance agent to make sure all coverage limits are adequate to provide meaningful protection in the event your home must be replaced or repaired.  You should get an estimate of the replacement cost of your home from an appraiser or reputable contractor, and ensure that your policy covers 100 percent of the estimated replacement cost.  Recognize that replacement cost is not the same as current fair market value, purchase price, or the outstanding balance of your mortgage.  Check with your attorney or insurance agent if you need help understanding your policy coverage.
- Meet with your attorney periodically to ensure your estate planning documents are up to date.  Your family’s wills, trusts, powers of attorney, living trusts or medical directives may become critical in the aftermath of a fire.
- Identify important family items, such as identification papers, estate planning documents, insurance documents, official certificates, original deeds and titles, family heirlooms, family photos, journals and scrapbooks.  Make a plan for protecting these items in the event of a disaster, through the use of a safe deposit box, fireproof safe, off-site storage, etc.  Prioritize which limited items will go with you in the event of an evacuation.  Often your attorney may 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 key 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 hard drives.
- Document all valuables with photos and video. Store all serial numbers in a safe place and inform 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 home has burned?  You may avoid legal issues or additional losses by considering the following in the immediate aftermath:
- Make arrangements to ensure your family’s immediate needs for shelter, food, clothing, medicine, and other essentials will be 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, public officials may be able to inform you of specific emergency resources provided by public agencies or charities.
- Contact your insurance agent or company and report the loss.  You should also contact at least the following to report the fire, as appropriate:  your mortgage company, your employer, your child’s school, the post office, and the utility companies.  Contact your attorney in the event you need important papers replaced from their files, if you have any difficulty getting your insurer to respond to your claim, or if any other legal issues arise.
- Follow the instructions of local public safety officials regarding the site of the fire.  Do not re-enter your home or turn utilities back on without instruction from public safety officials.  If you were evacuated, do not return until given authorization to do so by proper officials.
- Do your best to safely secure the site before you leave it unattended, including boarding up broken windows and locking doors and gates where possible.  “No trespassing” or similar signage is also recommended.  Notify local police if you must leave the site unattended.
- As soon as you can safely do so, attempt to locate and secure any essential documents or property that may have survived the fire, such as in a fireproof safe.
- Save all receipts for any money you spend.  Receipts provide documentation of your losses for both your insurer and the IRS.
- Do not throw away damaged property until it has been properly inventoried for purposes of documenting your loss.  Before contracting for any disaster recovery services, contact your insurer first to ensure you meet all requirements for having such costs covered by your policy.  Document your own and family members’ time spent in recovery and inventory efforts—much of your time may also be compensable at rates agreed upon with your insurer.
The loss of your home is a devastating event, but by preparing in advance and making the right decisions afterward, you and your family can recover.  Additional information and tips on preparing for and recovering from a home fire can be found at www.redcross.org, www.usfa.fema.gov, and other resources.
Matthew Ence is an attorney with the law firm of Snow, Jensen & Reece. The content in this column should not be construed as legal advice or as a substitute for counsel on individual matters.