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February 25, 2013

6 tips for dealing with your insurance company after a disaster

By Nancy Mann Jackson, InsWeb.com

Weeks after Superstorm Sandy battered the Northeast, many victims complained they still were waiting to get straight answers from their insurance companies about what damages would be covered and how to proceed with claims.

To be fair, insurers haven’t completely fallen down on the job. For instance, insurers in New York have complied with the state Department of Financial Services’ order to reduce the number of business days to get an adjuster to the policyholder’s property from 15 to six. In the states hit by Sandy, insurers have communicated extensively with policyholders, such as promoting their toll-free numbers and mobile catastrophe services, says Michael Barry, a spokesman for the industry-backed Insurance Information Institute.

“Almost every insurer has created special Sandy-related information sections on their external websites,” Barry says.

Still, some policyholders have been less than happy with the Sandy claim-filing process. Yet in New York, for example, state insurance regulators have received few formal complaints.

Marcy Wehling, an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps legal fellow with Legal Assistance of Western New York, began running a free legal clinic at Staten Island’s Saint Margaret Mary Roman Catholic Church six weeks after the storm. She says many of the families who’ve come for help still were waiting for insurance companies to respond to their claims before they could make repairs and move back into their homes. Others have been dissatisfied about claim disputes and claim payments, Wehling says.

For consumers dealing with disasters — or those who may someday deal with them — here are six tips for getting the most out of the claims process.insurance claim tips

1. Plan carefully.

Before buying coverage, figure out how the claims and payout process works with a particular insurer.

“The random or knee-jerk purchase of home and auto insurance is the last thing you want to do without careful planning and a clear understanding (of) how to collect the money from the company on claim day,” says consumer educator Ron Alford, author of “Win the Claim Game.”

Just as you’d want to learn how to drive a car before buying one, learn how to collect money from an insurance company before buying a policy, Alford says.

2. Get everything in writing.

When communicating with your insurance company during the claim-filing process, do so only in writing, says Ronny Jetmore, an insurance agent in Maryland.

“If they do call you, and sometimes this is unavoidable, follow up the conversation with an email to them, highlighting what was discussed and what was spoken by the both of you,” he says.

With a paper trail, you can avoid some confusion during the claims process.

3. Compile documentation before disaster strikes.

“Lack of documentation is a big problem for many clients,” says Jamie Rodriguez, an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps legal fellow who has assisted tornado victims in Joplin, Mo., and hurricane victims in New York. “Insurance companies want to know what items people own, and it’s very difficult to sit down and list out everything that was in your house, which you need to do if you want to be compensated.”

Consider making a list of all your possessions before a disaster happens or do a video tour of your house that can be stored in a secure place.

4. Understand your coverage limits.

It’s important to be aware of what your insurance policy covers, along with the limits of your coverage. For instance, if your home is covered for up to $250,000 and you make improvements that would make rebuilding your home cost more than $300,000, your policy typically wouldn’t cover the full cost of rebuilding.

“We have unfortunately seen some clients hire cleaning or restoration companies upon assurances that their insurance would cover the service, only to learn that they had, in fact, already reached the limits of their coverage and their insurance would not cover anything further,” Rodriguez says. “These clients were left to pay the cleaning and restoration bills on their own.”

5. Keep tabs on your home’s condition.

“Sometimes insurance companies will dispute whether or not the disaster actually caused the damage,” Rodriguez says. “For example, did wind really cause the roof damage, or was your roof just old? Document the damage around you to put your own home’s damage into context: Did neighbors on both sides of you have the same damage on the same date? That makes your case much stronger.”

6. Speak with your agent.

If you’re struggling to get answers from your insurance company, Rodriguez recommends talking to your local agent.

“It’s always best to develop a relationship with a local contact who you can speak with again and again, allowing them to become familiar with your case,” Rodriguez says.

If you don’t have a local agent, insurers can handle inquiries from policyholders online or on the phone.

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