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posted: 11/9/2012 4:59 AM

How to speed insurance reimbursement after disaster strikes

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Millions of insurance claims will be filed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, but savvy homeowners can take a few simple steps now to get their reimbursement as quickly as possible.

Q. Our home suffered major damage when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, and it took several months to get a check from our insurance company to make repairs, simply because we waited a few weeks to call the insurer and get the paperwork rolling. Could you please provide some tips to homeowners who are about to face huge repair bills from Hurricane Sandy so they can speed the claims process and avoid the same problems we did?

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A. Sure. The first thing that homeowners who suffered Sandy's recent wrath should do is call their insurance agent, or their insurer's claims department directly. Each company has its own set of rules for filing a claim, and even the simplest mistake can lead to lengthy processing delays or perhaps even a reduction in the amount that the homeowner can collect. So make the call right away, even if you haven't assessed all the damages and personal-possession losses yet.

Making the call immediately will put you near the front of the claims line. That's a particularly important advantage, because millions of claims likely will be filed, and most insurers tend to work on a first-come, first-served basis. Dawdling for just a week or two could add several months to the settlement process.

It's also important to make any needed emergency repairs right away. You shouldn't start any major rebuilding project without first getting your insurer's approval, but your policy probably requires you to make minor "fixes" -- like boarding up broken windows or throwing a tarp over a leaking roof -- so the damage doesn't get any worse.

Take plenty of pictures or shoot a video before doing the emergency repairs, though, so the insurance adjuster who eventually visits the property can see what condition it was in immediately after the storm passed. Keep any receipts for the materials you purchase, because the insurer likely will be willing to reimburse some or all of their cost: Ditto for any temporary lodging or food expenses you incurred before you were able to reoccupy the home.

One of the most time-consuming parts of filing a claim, whether it's for a near-total loss or a relatively minor fire or other mishap, is to itemize all the personal possessions that have been damaged or destroyed. But it's a lot easier if the homeowner had previously completed a "home inventory list," available for free from most insurers as well as the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, (800) 331-9146, www.iii.org.

If you need to file a claim but don't have a previously completed home inventory, the institute also operates www.knowyourstuff.org, a free website that can help you remember many of the items that were lost. Old receipts and credit-card statements, or photos taken inside your home that you or friends still have, can help jog your memory. Don't throw any damaged items out; the adjuster may want to see them first.

It's OK to start getting written bids from contractors for permanent repairs. But again, don't sign any contract until the adjuster approves the proposed expenditures. Make sure you're there to greet the adjuster when he or she comes out so you can walk through the home together, which will allow you to detail the damage and point out any areas of special concern.

Remember, too, that there are a lot of shady contractors out there. Scam artists always come out of the woodwork after a major disaster, so first check with state regulators to ensure that any repairman you think of hiring is licensed, insured and, if necessary, bonded.

Q. Is a "living will" the same thing as a "living trust?"

A. No, they are two different types of legal documents that serve two different purposes.

A living will is a document that spells out whether you want to be kept on a life-support system if you become terminally ill and would die soon without the system's help, or if you fall into a vegetative state that medical professionals believe you will never leave.

A living trust, on the other hand, is a document that lets you leave your home or other property to your heirs without forcing them to suffer through the costly, time-consuming and emotionally draining probate process that a common will demands.

Real estate trivia: Though many believe the phrase "there's no place like home" was first uttered by Judy Garland in the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz," it actually was part of the lyrics of a popular song written by American poet and playwright John Howard Payne nearly 120 years earlier.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.

2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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