Tag Archives: personal property

Breakthroughs in Managing (and Insuring) Tangible Assets

In recent years, high-net-worth families have increasingly turned to tangible assets for more than their aesthetic values. A 2012 Barclays report found that high-net-worth individuals in the U.S. hold an average of 9% of their wealth in tangible assets. A 2011 ACE Private Risk Services study of high-net-worth households found that 74% of respondents, all with more than $5 million in investable assets, cited investment value as a reason to purchase rare art or wine, valuable jewelry, sports memorabilia or classic cars. Two-thirds said the potential for appreciation in value was important in their purchase decision.

As values of many categories of tangible assets have escalated, these assets increasingly serve to diversify investment portfolios during periods of volatile market gyrations. In the ACE study, more than half of the respondents reported that the investment diversification value of their tangible assets has become more important to them since 2008.

“Investors are increasingly looking to hard assets, such as valuable art, antiques or fine watches and wine collections, because of the perceived ability of these assets to hold value during market fluctuations,” says Tom Livergood, chief executive officer and founder of The Family Wealth Alliance, a Chicago-based family wealth research and consulting firm. “Across the industry, we’ve seen investors rush to safety and stay there.”

Blind spot

Even as tangible assets gain recognition as a new asset class, high-net-worth individuals rarely bring to their passions for art, wine or jewels the same rigor they have when making financial investments or business decisions. In ACE’s 2011 study, despite the growing number of households reporting greater importance of tangible assets to their investment portfolios, nearly 40% of those surveyed did not have all of their precious items insured against property loss with a valuables policy. Additionally, one in three reported that they were not updating the market value of these assets at least once every three years, and a full 15% of respondents had no formal documentation of their non-financial assets.

“It’s amazing how often some advisers, especially those with sophisticated knowledge of financial markets, suddenly turn unsophisticated when it comes to non-financial assets, notably art,” says Ronald Varney, owner and president of New York-based Ronald Varney Fine Art Advisors.

To Evan Jehle, a New York-based principal at Rothstein Kass, a professional services firm with a significant family practice, wealthy families typically pay 
far less attention to their personal property than to their business affairs. “Our clients would never let something fall through the cracks in their professional lives, but many families have never thought of their tangible assets in this way before.”

Thomas Handler, partner and chairman of the Family Office Practice Group at Handler Thayer, a Chicago-based law firm recognized as a leader in serving family offices, private businesses and high-net-worth individuals, says his office often advises clients who don't have a business plan for their tangible assets. “It is incredibly important for wealthy households to understand how to hold, report, title and insure their non-financial assets in estate planning.”

Challenges of managing tangible assets

Today’s investors have the opportunity 
to reap significant benefits – financially
 and aesthetically – by investing in
tangible assets, but these investments 
pose risks and challenges different from investment
 in traditional assets. Wealthy households and their advisers may cheer the rebounding market for art and other valuables, take comfort that they have diversified their investments and look forward to potential price appreciation in the future. However, those cheers could be premature if owners of non-financial assets fail to understand and properly address the critical issues facing these assets. Those issues include: value and authenticity, documentation, estate and tax planning 
as well as insurance; additionally, owners of tangible assets should embrace the new technology tools that dramatically improve the management of tangible wealth.

Value and Authenticity

The market value of tangible assets can change, sometimes rapidly. In July 2013, a 1954 Mercedes-Benz sold for $30 million, the highest price ever paid for a car at an auction, shattering the previous record of $16.4 million set in 2011. Global sales of wine, diamonds and precious gems have also been increasing, often to record levels. In December 2012, Sotheby’s recorded its highest one-day jewelry sales in the Americas, selling $64.8 million of high-carat diamonds and precious gems. The Live-ex Fine Wine 50 Index reached 106 in April 2013, up 5.3% in the first half of 2013. Over a 10-year period, prices for gold more than quadrupled, only to retreat more recently.

The market for fine art is especially robust. In 2012, Christie’s auction sales totaled more than $6 billion, a 10% increase from 2011. In May 2013, Christie’s reported $640 million of sales in its Post War and Contemporary department in one week, setting an auction record for any individual category.

Dramatic shifts in the market present challenges as well 
as opportunities for investors in tangible assets. “Today’s market is both global and complex,” Varney says. “Modern and contemporary art have made all the headlines, for that is where the greatest demand is today; but by next year the market could be turned upside-down, as happened in the fall of 2008 amid the global financial crisis.

Alan Fausel, vice president and director of the Fine Art Department in the New York office of Bonhams, a London-based auction house, cites the rapidly changing market as a serious issue for investors. “There is a huge risk and reward in today’s market because so many investors are entering uncharted territory. Today’s contemporary market has seen so much volatility and so much uncertainty with newly famous artists, that investors are especially challenged to understand the true value of the works they own.”

Protecting investments in art, jewelry, antiques or wine begins with an appraisal. Smart investors should perform their due diligence to select appraisers with specific expertise in the genre of their assets. “An accurate appraisal is the foundation for every decision 
an investor will make regarding his or her tangible assets,” says Anita Heriot, Philadelphia-based president of Pall Mall Advisors, a U.S. and U.K. art appraisal firm. Before donating, selling, insuring or placing valuable items in a succession plan, investors must know how much everything is worth. “Wealthy individuals must understand that the values of their tangible assets have changed, and these values will continue to change over time,” Heriot says. “Without understanding the value of their property, people cannot even begin to make correct decisions.”

Heriot observes that wealthy individuals sometimes drastically undervalue their tangible assets. She recalls one family that was tracking assets based on appraisals from 1983, with nearly 30 years between consultations. The collection was originally valued at about $2 million, but, after an updated appraisal, the
 fair market value was nearly $100 million. “There were paintings of incredible value hanging on only one nail, including a Rothko with an insurance value of at least $70 million. Had this family known what their property was worth, they certainly would have taken better care
 of it.” An appraisal from a qualified professional can
 also minimize other risks, as well as provide guidance regarding potential fakes and forgeries. In addition, an appraisal can identify other issues that could affect the value of the item or the right to ownership. These include the sale of items made from protected species, protected antiquities or stolen works.

Documentation

All too often, high-net-worth individuals and families find the process of documenting, tracking and managing
the contents of their home, including fine furniture and other valuable items, to be onerous. Proper documentation of personal property typically involves photo or video records, storage of purchase receipts and, in the case of highly valuable items, expert appraisals, proofs of title and provenance and records of any restoration work. Moreover, values need to be regularly updated, sometimes on both a depreciated-value and replacement-cost basis.

“Families rarely keep accurate records of their tangible assets because, quite frankly, it can be a lot of work,” says Jarrett Bostwick, wealth transfer and estate planning specialist at Handler Thayer, the Chicago law firm.

“If someone buys two pieces of art, a piece of jewelry, two watches and a diamond pendant for his wife, then they have to sit down and put a schedule together, contact the insurance company and have them come in and have them ask you a whole bunch of questions, which is kind of a pain. Rarely do our clients partake in this kind of rigor.”

If documentation is done at all, it tends to be completed inadequately and infrequently. ACE Private Risk Services and Trōv have been collaborating on a program in which specialists have examined the contents of more than 3,000 homes of high-net-worth families. In this Home Contents Valuation program, ACE risk consultants used Trōv technology to provide the industry’s first customized estimates of the value of a home’s contents at policy inception. Nearly 50% of the homes evaluated did not have enough insurance to cover their contents, and the average amount of underinsurance exceeded $415,000 per home. Condominium homes were particularly at risk. Nearly 80% had inadequate contents coverage. Among homes warranting an increase in contents coverage, those with a structural value of $2 million to $3 million had an average shortfall of $417,000 in contents coverage; those with a structural value of $5 million to $7.5 million had an average shortfall of $852,000. Furthermore, many valuable items were only protected by general contents coverage in the homeowner policy, when they should have been listed as scheduled items in a valuables policy.

The lack of proper documentation of a family’s tangible assets can lead to wide-ranging problems. “You have to know what you have in order to be worried about it, and to take steps to avoid losing it,” says Joy Berus, attorney at Berus Law Group in Newport Beach, Calif., a specialist in tangible asset protection. “If a family doesn’t have an updated inventory of their valuable possessions, they leave themselves vulnerable to taxes that could have been planned for and reduced, discrepancies, risk of serious financial loss and the inability to pass down their assets to the next generation with a step up in basis. Proper documentation of a household’s tangible assets is the first step in identifying a family’s tangible wealth, and can make the difference between security and paralysis.”

The magnitude of the potential issue is evident in one statistic: Over the next
 30 years, as much as $27 trillion of 
family wealth will be transferred from 
Baby Boomers to their children and grandchildren. That inheritance will include a great deal of tangible assets that will need to be documented, appraised, accounted for and protected.

Wealth managers often encounter situations in which a client dies and the family or trustee does not know where all of the valuables are. “These issues don’t usually come up until a client passes and you have to collect all of the assets and figure out what’s there,” says one wealth manager who works with high-net-worth clients. “Tangible assets aren’t addressed enough in the typical conversations between wealth managers and their clients.”

Handler, the attorney, points to a noted photographer who was living in a retirement home. 
He kept with him a large collection of negatives of images of leaders, celebrities and historical events.
The photographer suffered from dementia, and over
 the years most of the collection slowly disappeared. “Unfortunately, the family did not have a record of everything and didn’t know who took the photographs,” Handler recalls. “We found some of the items on the black market on websites. But the vast majority is never going to see the light of day.”

Berus recalls working with professional athletes and asking if their wealth advisers asked them if they possessed sports memorabilia. “Every one of them said the same thing, ‘Nobody has ever asked before.’ One retired football player talked about how he lost the majority of his lifetime collection because it had been in a fire, and it wasn’t insured. He couldn’t prove what he had and had a major loss because of it.”

Berus adds, “When people don’t know what they have, they can lose money and be taken advantage of by people who do know what they have. You don’t want to lose the value of what you own or be taken advantage of. You also don’t want to cause tax problems for yourself or pay unnecessary taxes. When you know what you have and know what it is really worth, you can make better decisions.”

Loss Prevention

By definition, tangible assets are subject to risks of physical damage, theft and the ravages of time. Yet experts say that high-net-worth families often neglect
 to take steps to protect their art, jewelry, wine and other valuables from these threats. One ACE study, for example, found that 40% of wealthy individuals surveyed failed to take advantage of the services of a risk consultant who could help them reduce the risk of damage and theft.

Collectors do not always realize the risk-prevention measures available to them to help guard against, 
and minimize, exposures, says Heather Becker,
 chief executive officer of the Conservation Center, a Chicago-based provider of conservation services for fine art, textiles, photography and sculptures. “No one wants to think a significant loss will happen to them.”

Many families display or store their precious possessions in ways that increase the risk of loss. For instance, they hang artwork above an active fireplace, where the hot, dry air and soot accelerates deterioration. They neglect to place a historical artifact, such as a letter written by a famous figure, in an archival box protected by anti-ultraviolet protective glass, exposing the artifact to dangerous rays and fumes.
 Or they store a valuable stamp collection in a closet beneath a bathroom. If the tub overflows or the toilet develops a leak, the stamps could be ruined. “So many people forget that these assets – art, wine, gems – are very fragile,” Varney says. “Valuable assets can go from $1 million in value to $0 in the blink of an eye.” Investors who fail to properly address these threats remain vulnerable to severe financial loss.

Even items made of strong, durable materials can be
ar risk. Becker recalls the story of an ancient metal sculpture, which its owner stored in a warehouse for several years while not on display. While the owner made sure the sculpture was stored in a protective crate, the crate was stored on its side, instead of standing up. “The sculpture was severely warped and sustained considerable damage,” Becker says. “There is a cumulative effect to these risks that individuals must account for.”

Insurance

Given the increasing value of rare art, precious gems and fine wine, and the array of physical threats and other financial exposures confronting these pieces, proper insurance represents a critical part of a complete wealth-protection plan. Often the best place for families and their wealth advisers to start addressing this need is with an insurance broker or independent agent who specializes in serving families with emerging or established wealth. These insurance advisers, who can be recognized by their access to specialty insurance carriers, can usually suggest and coordinate services from a variety of experts.

While investors of tangible assets may go to great lengths to acquire the items they desire, they frequently fail to adequately protect them. In a 2012 ACE survey, fully 86% of insurance agents said the families who insure their homes and possessions with mass-market insurance companies likely carry too little insurance for their treasured items. One in three wealthy families was updating the market value of their collections every three years.

“Waiting three years or more mean their valuations will be wildly out of date,” says Fausel of Bonhams.

ACE Private Risk Services and Trōv analyzed 94 valuables schedules to compare stated replacement values with current market values. For the 48 schedules of fine art assets, comprising 1,722 objects, 665 objects were potentially underinsured. For the 46 jewelry schedules, one in four objects was potentially underinsured. Moreover, 32% of all the analyzed items had descriptions that were too vague or incomplete to allow for an accurate valuation. If a loss were to occur, this could lead to a dispute.

Emerging technology

For individuals and families with substantial tangible assets, new technology tools exist to make tracking, analyzing and sharing information about their assets significantly easier and more efficient. Pall Mall’s Heriot sees high demand for these tools: “As tangible assets become more valuable and wealthy families become more invested in their personal property, we see clients begging for a better understanding of what they own and greater knowledge of what it’s all worth.” The goal for wealth advisers and their clients should be to make tracking and analyzing information about personal property regular, everyday actions rather than infrequent behaviors.

Progress is promising. ACE Private Risk Services offers clients access to its Home Contents Valuation service, providing guidance regarding general contents coverage at policy inception–at the moment, coverage for personal property, a home’s contents, is typically assigned based on a percentage of the home’s structural value or it is a guess. Trōv has developed technology, partnerships and applications to tame the unruly mass of data about every tangible asset in its members’ lives. The core of the
 Trōv platform is a private, online digital locker where the information about property and possessions is collected and securely managed (called a Trōv, like treasure trove). Because most of Trōv users’ important personal property is located in their private spaces, Trōv is training appraisers and insurance risk managers to use its Trōv Collect application when they are in their clients’ homes. With the acquired information, a Trōv is activated – and with it a complete knowledge of what each family owns, where it’s located and what it’s worth. Acquisitions can be automatically added to a personal Trōv at retail point-of-sale, via electronic receipts and through a mobile application. The Trōv Mobile app enables members to snap a picture of any acquired item, add any support information, such as a receipt, package art, bar-code or QR-code, and send it to their Trōv in real time. As purchases are added, and as values change within the Trōv, the member can choose to have his or her advisers automatically notified to ensure the items are always accounted for and adequately protected.

Vision of the future

The future of wealth management encompasses an understanding of a client’s tangible assets as well as financial assets, completing the picture of total 
net worth. By using a continually updated inventory
 of personal property, families can manage risk on a real-time basis, applying effective loss-prevention techniques, securing the proper amounts of high-quality insurance coverage and anticipating tax and estate-planning issues. Insurance companies such as ACE will be able to recommend safety measures and introduce coverage rates that are increasingly fair, accurate and economical. Private bankers, estate planning attorneys and family offices will develop deeper relationships with their clients and referral networks. Wealth advisers will be able to expand the perspective they offer to clients and engage other appropriate professionals, such as insurance brokers, on a more timely and routine basis. Advisers who provide clients with a full-circle view of their assets will be well-positioned to gain a competitive advantage.

Cloud services, such as those provided by Trōv, will even enhance enjoyment of prized possessions. With a few simple strokes on a mobile device, an owner will be able to find like-minded collectors. Buying, selling and sharing will become a dynamic experience, and, because it will be easy to track the history of an object, every possession with have a story built into it. 

Conclusion

Demand for tangible assets of art, wine, jewelry and other collectibles is on the upswing, and auction sales across the globe continue to skyrocket. As these tangible assets are increasingly recognized as means of investment diversification, wealth advisers are challenged to provide a full-circle, comprehensive view of a client’s entire portfolio. Fortunately, new technology tools are meeting these ever-expanding demands. Mobile and cloud technology services improve the tracking, management and valuation of tangible assets, providing families and their advisers with greater awareness. Furthermore, these tools enable families to secure comprehensive insurance coverage and loss-prevention services, assess investment risk across both financial and tangible assets and more effectively anticipate tax and estate-planning issues. In today’s digital age, an analysis of any high-net-worth individual’s assets must include these tangible assets to complete the picture of total wealth management.

For the white paper on which this article was based, click here

A Technology Breakthrough for Valuing Tangible Assets

What are your clients’ tangible assets worth? If you are like most advisors, you don’t have a clear answer. Without that clarity, you are leaving yourself and your clients at risk. Tangible assets – valuables ranging from fine art and wine to classic cars and jewelry – make up an ever-increasing portion of household wealth. Yet there is little visibility into this asset class.

Why? Often, individuals find the process of documenting, tracking and managing the values of tangible assets to be tedious. Instead of producing a thorough inventory, the insured may opt for a blanket umbrella policy that covers general contents as a percentage of the home’s value. The individual may list certain items, but with inadequate documentation. Many times, both the insured and the insurer fail to keep up as the market value of collections changes.

Fortunately, technology has emerged that makes collecting and managing information about tangible assets significantly easier. Appraisers can collect detailed data and provenance on property and possessions and upload them to a personal, online digital locker, where the items are regularly valued, securely managed, and are accessible anytime. Individuals will soon be able to use their smartphones to take a picture of a valuable object and upload it directly to this locker. As items are added and values change, the owner is notified – and can choose to automatically alert his advisors, including insurers and wealth managers, to ensure the items are accounted for and adequately protected.

The continuous transparency that the locker provides into values can be eye-opening to users.  Case in point: A family in the Northeast has a large, valuable art collection. Thirty years ago, the family had the pieces insured, using estate values provided by auction houses. These values, as a rule, are much lower than retail replacement values, so the family’s collection was initially insured at about half of what it should have been. The collection had not been appraised since the early 1980s, and, when a wealth manager had it re-appraised in 2012, values had changed so substantially that a piece initially valued at several hundred thousand dollars now carries a fair market value of more than $50 million.

The consequences of this type of undervaluation are significant. Had the owner passed away before the revaluation, the estate could have suffered an immense tax bill. In the event of loss, theft, fire or water damage, the owner would have been severely underinsured and faced significant loss. In addition, had the owners known the higher value of the artwork, they could have sold or leveraged it.

The bottom line is: With more information about their valuables, individuals  – and their advisors – can make more informed decisions.

This ability to capture, securely store and provide real-time valuations is a momentous step forward in tangible wealth management, and has been made possible by several technological advancements:

1. Data About Prized Possessions
There is a massive amount of data now available on luxury items. Whether a person’s passion investment is wine, diamonds, classic automobiles or fine art, there is a database that captures the real-time value changes in the category. By using technology to process that data, individuals gain a better composite view of their wealth, a greater idea of potential liquidity options, and a more accurate way to assess risk.

2. Digital Collection — Onsite and at Retail
In the not-so-distant past, a person had to take pictures or videos and store them on a hard drive, keep receipts in a safe deposit box, and use a spreadsheet to capture information on valuables. Now that all communication and record keeping has gone digital, certified appraisers can use apps to capture all of this information on-site. Merchants can email electronic receipts. Individuals can snap a picture of any acquired item, add support information like a receipt, package art, or bar or QR-code and send it to their personal digital locker in real time. All of this information is securely accessible anytime, anywhere.

3. Cloud Storage and Connectivity
Once information is collected electronically, it can be safely and securely stored in a personal digital locker in the cloud. This eliminates the need for paper records or other media that can be lost, stolen, or destroyed.  In addition to storage, the cloud provides connectivity, creating a virtual ecosystem where individuals can privately view the value of their tangible assets and manage those assets. This new capability includes easy connections to on-line auction houses, dealers, insurers, wealth manager and the like to sell, insure, donate, or take other beneficial actions powered by information about everything a person owns.

Ultimately, data is currency, and new technology is helping individuals cash in on the data about their tangible wealth. The information about possessions has inherent value. By adopting emerging technologies to collect, value and connect the information about individuals’ personal property, individuals and their advisors can finally gain transparency into tangible assets – completing the total wealth picture.

Claims In A Catastrophe, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a two-part series on claims management in the wake of a disaster. Part 1 of this series can be found here.

Protect All Property From Further Damage
Every policy requires that the insured protect the property from further loss. Therefore, you should turn off any water flow to broken appliances or pipes, arrange to have openings in roofs or walls covered to protect from rain damage, and seek help from the adjuster to further protect your property from losses of all types.

Take any necessary emergency measures to protect the building and personal property from any further damage. Do not throw anything away until permission of the insurance company is obtained in writing and you have documented its condition unless the damaged property presents a hazard to the health or safety of your family or others.

If the insurer delays or refuses to authorize measures to prevent further loss, confirm the insurer’s delay in a fax, email, and a letter, and take whatever reasonable measures you can afford to protect the property. If your loss is covered, the insurance company should also cover the cost of any reasonable emergency measures you took to protect your property. It is not unusual for an insurer to deny coverage for damage resulting after the initial claim on the grounds that an insured failed to comply with the policy condition to protect the property from further damage.

Document The Loss
If you were prudent and prepared, before the catastrophe, an inventory of your contents or took pictures of your contents, provide the adjuster with the inventory and photographs or videotape. Photograph, videotape, and inventory all damaged property after the loss. Make sure you record the date of the photos and videotape. It is important to document the source and the extent of damage whether by fire or water intrusion.

In most states, a material misrepresentation, concealment, or omission made in connection with the claim will give the insurer a valid reason to reject the entire claim. For example, claiming that an item was destroyed that really wasn’t or substantially overstating the value of a damaged item is fraud. In most states insurance fraud is a felony that can place you in state prison if convicted.

No catastrophe is so bad as to cause you to attempt to defraud your insurer to make up for uninsured losses. You should never exaggerate, speculate, or guess about the loss or value of any particular piece of property. Make it clear to your insurer when recollection may not be accurate, when you are estimating value, and the basis for your estimate. For the value of items you are not sure about on a claim presentation, use the phrase “To Be Determined.” If you do not have receipts to show the price of an item, information can be found in catalogs, statements from retail clerks, bank statements, credit card statements, or statements from family members or friends.

If all else fails, a formal appraisal can be obtained from a professional personal property appraiser. Save this as a last resort, since the insurer will usually refuse to reimburse you for the costs of hiring an appraiser, but may hire one at no cost to you if asked courteously.

You Must Cooperate With The Insurance Company’s Investigation And Handling Of The Claim
You have a contractual obligation to cooperate with the insurer in its investigation and handling of the claim. However, you never have an obligation to allow yourself to be abused. In most states the insured and the insurance company have a mutual obligation to act in good faith and deal fairly with each other to investigate and process the claim. This means that both should avoid taking any unreasonable position or doing or saying anything that would in any way frustrate each other’s rights under the policy.

The insurer may require one or more recorded statements from you. Always request a copy of the recording and a transcript of the statement to review. You have a right to review and correct the transcript of any recorded statement.

You may also be required to appear for an “Examination Under Oath” (EUO). The insurer may, but is not required to, hire an attorney to take the Examination Under Oath to represent the insured. Since a lawyer is not required, however, the insurer will not pay for the attorney that is representing you. The Examination Under Oath is a contractual obligation and there is usually no clause in the insurance policy promising to pay a lawyer to help the insured make a claim against an insurer. You should not appear for an Examination Under Oath until you understand all rights, the insurance coverage, and the full extent of the claim, or until counsel is retained. Do not refuse to appear at an Examination Under Oath or the insurer may reject the claim because such refusal is a breach of a material condition of the policy. You may reasonably request a delay in appearance at an Examination Under Oath to obtain the services of counsel or a public insurance adjuster.

The insurer may ask you to make available various documents related to the claim, including banking statements, investment reports, receipts, and other personal financial documents. You are required to produce any documentation reasonably related to the insurer’s investigation of the claim that can include tax returns. In some states, tax returns are considered privileged and the insured cannot be compelled to produce them, while in other states the failure to produce tax returns is sufficient cause to deny the claim. [See Barry Zalma, Insurance Claims: A Comprehensive Guide, (Specialty Technical Publishers, 2002): Chapter II-5.]

The insurer can require you to produce these kinds of documents as long as they are reasonably related to its investigation. You should not provide these documents to the insurer until you understand the rights, duties, and obligations imposed by the insurance coverage and the full extent of the claim. You should never refuse to produce documents unreasonably since the requirement for document production is a condition precedent to the insurer’s obligation to provide a defense and/or indemnity to you.

Proof Of Loss Requirement
Most first party property policies require that you submit a sworn proof of loss form to the insurer within a certain amount of time, either after the loss or after being provided the proof of loss form. During a catastrophe, especially when total losses are involved, insurers will often waive this requirement.

Flood insurance policies require the proof of loss within sixty days of the loss and are applied in a draconian fashion. If you cannot produce a proof of flood loss within 60 days of the loss, obtain an extension of time, in writing from the adjuster, or you will lose all rights under the policy to indemnity.

In most states you are contractually obligated to submit the sworn proof of loss within the time limit (usually 60 days from the date of request), or at least to substantially comply with the requirement, unless the insurer agrees to dispense with the sworn proof of loss or extend the time. You should not submit the sworn proof of loss to the insurer until you understand all of the rights and obligations imposed by the policy, the insurance coverages, and the full extent of the claim. It is not unusual for an insurer to consider mistakes in the sworn proof of loss (since they are sworn to under oath) as intentional misrepresentations sufficient to allow it to reject coverage for a claim. A statement made under oath cannot, by definition, contain an innocent misrepresentation. Never sign a sworn proof of loss, even if your lawyer or professional public insurance adjuster prepares it, until you have carefully read every word and are certain that the statements made are true.

Some insurers believe that, at some point, you will refuse to comply with their requests. If you refuse to comply with reasonable requests for a recorded statement, an Examination Under Oath, a sworn proof of loss, or documents reasonably related to the insurer’s investigation, you may give the insurer a valid excuse to deny the claim based on your breach of the duty to cooperate.

If you believe that any requests made by the insurer are unreasonable, ask the insurer to explain the reason(s) for the requests in writing. Err on the side of caution and provide all documents that have some reasonable connection to the policy or loss. Before giving an insurer a reason to deny a claim because of your failure to cooperate, consult with a policyholder attorney, a public adjuster, or the state Department of Insurance before refusing a request that may, in retrospect, turn out to have been reasonable.

Get A Second Opinion
Many insureds believe that insurers make a practice of making inadequate (sometimes called “lowball”) offers of settlement. They are wary of what they think are estimates from insurance-company-friendly contractors. Whether true or not, it is a good practice to get a second, or even a third, written estimate to repair and replace damaged property from reputable, independent professionals that you would hire to do the repairs if there was no insurance.

You are entitled to have the damaged property replaced with “like kind and quality.” This means that you should insist that the amount determined to be the amount of loss is sufficient to replace the property with property of like kind and quality to the damaged property. When you cannot match the remaining undamaged tile, wallpaper, carpeting, or other portions of undamaged property, you are usually entitled to have the entire “line of sight” replaced to match. For example, if a broken water pipe destroys the hardwood floor in a kitchen and does no damage to the contiguous hardwood floor in the adjoining family room, the insurer is required to replace both the damaged and undamaged floors so that they match as long as they are in a continuous line of sight.

Some losses are paid on an actual cash value (ACTUAL CASH VALUE) basis, which in some states means either the fair market value of the property at the time of loss unless the policy defines ACTUAL CASH VALUE differently. Many policies will define ACTUAL CASH VALUE as replacement cost less physical depreciation for age and wear and tear.

Some losses are paid out on a replacement cost value (REPLACEMENT COST VALUE), where the insured is paid the difference between actual cash value and replacement cost value after the insured has actual sums necessary to complete the replacement.

You may collect the ACTUAL CASH VALUE loss immediately and advise the insurer you intend to make claim for the difference between ACTUAL CASH VALUE and REPLACEMENT COST VALUE when the structure is rebuilt. If your policy has a time-limit for rebuilding be sure to get a written extension of time since, after a catastrophe, the rebuilding process is often severely delayed.

When fire and water-damage reconstruction contractors write estimates for insurance companies they always add at the end of their estimate a sum equal to 10% of the basic contract price for “overhead,” and an additional 10% of the basic contract price for “profit.”

This technique is a fiction believed only by contractors and adjusters. Knowledgeable construction people know that no contractor could survive on 10% profit and that contractors build overhead and profit into their basic unit costs (paint, plaster, roofing, etc) and add the “profit and overhead” numbers as a fee for the extra service they provide to insurers.

In recent years, some insurers have attempted to withhold 20%, an amount equal to the contractor’s “profit and overhead” numbers to arrive at an ACTUAL CASH VALUE amount. There is no basis in the policy that allows withholding profit and overhead as a means of calculating ACTUAL CASH VALUE. In fact, ACTUAL CASH VALUE is defined either as the difference in the fair market value of the property before the loss and the fair market value of the property after the loss or the full cost of replacement using like kind and quality, less physical depreciation.

You should insist that any amounts withheld from payment pending completion of the work, be documented in writing and justified by the adjuster objectively. Policyholder attorneys and some insurance regulators have successfully prevented insurers from withholding these amounts.

Investigate Contractors
Thoroughly investigate the qualifications, license, and references of your insurance company’s approved contractor before agreeing to hire them to perform the repairs. The State Contractors Licensing Board will usually provide the consumer, by telephone or over the Internet, with the contractor’s license status and history of discipline. At a minimum, the licensing entity and a reference should be checked before a contract is signed. You do not have to use consultants or contractors recommended or approved by the insurer to perform repairs. Approved contractors are typically contractors who have agreed to discount their labor and costs and follow insurer guidelines in exchange for a volume of business from the insurance company. If your insurer promises to guarantee the approved contractor’s work, the guarantee is generally limited to replacing any defective materials or correcting faulty workmanship. The insurer is not insuring against any contractor delays, negligence, or liability. Accordingly, do not use the approved contractor unless it is a contractor that you would independently hire to do the work after a thorough screening. Check that each contractor’s license is valid and for any complaints against the license. Ensure that the contractor is bonded and insured.

Seek Proper Legal Advice
Never sign a release, waiver, indemnity, or “hold harmless” agreement without proper legal advice. If the insurer, adjuster, consultant, or contractor asks you to sign a release, waiver, indemnity, or hold harmless agreement, ask them to explain why in writing. These kinds of agreements can be used to deprive an insured of rights and benefits and may obligate you to pay thousands of extra dollars for issues that arise. Consult a policyholder attorney to determine your rights before signing any such agreement.

Seek professional help, if needed. If you reach an impasse with the insurer, document the dispute fully in writing. Explain your position and why the insurance company’s position is unreasonable. If the dispute does not require legal advice, you may be able to resolve it by calling your state’s Department of Insurance or by hiring a lawyer or public adjuster. If the dispute does require legal advice, contact a lawyer who is experienced and specializes in representing policyholders. There are many consultants who claim to be “insurance claims experts” who do not have adequate training, skill, or experience. Before you retain one, investigate the person diligently by contacting licensing bodies and references.

Be Aware Of Deadlines
Make sure you know all the deadlines that may cut off the right to file a lawsuit. California has a four-year statute of limitations for breaches of written contracts but most insurance policies require suit within one or two years of the loss or the denial of a claim. If your claim is denied, seek legal advice promptly.

In most states the insurance company is required to tell you, in writing, that the claim is denied, and that the limitations clock is running. That is, if you disagree with the insurer’s conclusion to deny your claim you have a limited time to file suit. Make sure you understand all possible deadlines. Consult with a policyholder attorney as soon as possible. The time limitation can be as short as one year from the date the loss occurred and can be put on hold by actions of the insurer. If you wish to sue, it is best to contact counsel as soon as possible before the expiration of the time limit.

Report all Unfair Claims Handling to the Department of Insurance or an Insurance Regulator
The state Insurance Department tracks policyholder complaints about their insurers and compiles the results. Most states have proactive consumer advocates in their insurance departments who will jump in to help you if they believe the insurer is not treating you fairly.

Conclusion
Many insurers involved in catastrophes provide their adjusters with policy limits authority and instruct the adjuster to be generous. If your house was one of those totally destroyed and coverage is available, there is a good probability that you will receive the full policy limits immediately.

If you did not carry sufficient insurance to totally rebuild your house and replace your contents consider the acquisition of a factory built home which can be trucked to your site and completed, with all appliances included, for much less than a conventionally constructed home.
Almost all claims will be handled promptly and fairly. A person knowledgeable about insurance claims can better deal with an insurance company. Don’t take advantage of your insurer and don’t let an insurer take advantage of you. You are entitled to indemnity. You and your insurer should work together to make you whole.

This article is adapted from Barry Zalma’s book, “Insurance Claims: A Comprehensive Guide” and his book “Mold: A Comprehensive Claims Guide” published by Specialty Technical Publishers, Vancouver, BC, Canada; 800-251-0381; http://www.stpub.com.