The first, and most basic, thing to do to help with an insurance claim
is to make sure you buy and maintain insurance on your home and property.
Keep the policy and endorsements and amendments in a safe deposit box,
so they don’t burn up. If your policy was destroyed, then ask your
insurance agent or company for a certified copy right away. You have to
do this because policies are different, you want to know what you had
and you want to make a claim for and receive everything that you are entitled
to under your policy.
You should contact your insurance agent or company and make a claim right
away. Not only may your policy pay for the costs of living somewhere else
while your home is repaired or rebuilt and help pay for clothes to wear,
but, practically, it may be better to be closer to the front of the line
than the end. Many people were affected and made homeless by these fires
and there are only so many places to house them.
When you get your policy, read it. You want to know, from the outset, not
only what coverages you had, but what your time limits are. Property policies
have time limits for a lot of things, like for making proof of loss, for
how long the insurance company will pay additional living expenses, for
how long you have to complete construction and obtain replacement cost
(assuming you had replacement cost coverage) and for how long you have
to sue the insurance company and those time limits can be fairly short.
You should make sure you and your contractor know and abide by your time limits.
Receipts are great. If you haven’t kept receipts for everything in
the past, certainly keep all of them going forward. They can help prove
your additional living expenses and claims under other coverages.
While it is generally your burden to prove up the amount of your loss,
if you don’t have receipts, look for other proof you may have. It
is a good idea to video your home and your possessions in place in your
home in advance of any loss to document your ownership of the items and
their condition, etc. and to keep that video in your safe deposit box
too. So, look for videos, photos, etc. and get going on an inventory.
People who didn’t suffer a loss in these fires should look on this
as a wake-up call to be ready for the future.
Keep good notes of your conversations with the claims adjustor and of the
events in your case. While you may be able to request your claims file
down the road, it is best if you make your own contemporaneous record
of things, from your perspective.
Give your insurance company the chance to do the right thing, but if you
don’t think what they are doing is right, reasonable, or fair, or
if you have questions, you certainly have the right to contact a lawyer.
Remember that time limits in property insurance matters can be short.
You definitely want to contact a lawyer immediately if they demand to
take your exam under oath and before you submit to one, before you invoke
an appraisal clause, and/or if they send you a denial letter.
Remember that insurance policies are contracts that are subject to laws
and regulations. This means that sometimes even if it says something in
black and white, it might not be enforceable, because it violates a statute,
etc. It also means that ambiguous provisions might be interpreted to favor
you. Lawyers, especially those trained in insurance as well as in law,
can certainly be valuable in these matters, especially since a person’s
home is often their biggest asset.
Mark E. Hancock, is a lawyer, with offices in Ventura. He is trained in
insurance and worked as a property insurance underwriter before becoming
a lawyer. He previously worked for an insurance defense firm before opening
his own practice representing insureds, the persons making the claims.
[Addendum: So many people have been affected by these fires that it may
not be possible to get a home rebuilt within the policy and legal time
parameters, even with the declaration of a state of emergency. With that
in mind, people may want to see if their insurance company will agree
to relax the time limits and, if so, it should be in writing. A lawyer
could be helpful with that.]