Avoid the paper chase
You may have mere minutes to evacuate, and that's no time to be running around looking for must-have paperwork. So before disaster strikes, collect and copy it.
Keep one set of original or photocopied records in a portable file system or lock box that will allow grab-and-go convenience if you evacuate. Make a backup set of electronic copies and save them on CDs, DVDs or external drives that should be stored in another safe location, such as a bank safe deposit box or the distant home of a trusted friend or relative. If you have a remote back-up service, you can keep the copies there as well. Going forward, be sure to keep records updated.
The documents should include:
• Personal: Birth and marriage certificates, divorce decrees, passports, diploma and military documents, Social Security card, and photocopies of your driver's license and the front and back of all credit cards. Also include phone numbers of friends and relatives, because numbers stored on your cellphone may be inaccessible if its battery dies and you can't recharge.
• Home and property: Home deed, mortgage and closing statements; car titles; insurance policies or at the minimum, policy number and contact information for your agent and insurer; appraisal documents for jewelry and other valuables.
• Estate: Your will, executor and estate planning paperwork, including names and phone numbers.
• Medical: Medicare or health insurance cards, prescription records (especially for medications for chronic conditions such as diabetes and asthma), and contact information for your doctors.
• Financial: Stock and bond certificates; IRA or 401(k) account numbers; bank statements; and tax records, including W2s and important receipts.
Prove your possessions
To minimize possible insurance claim hassles, take and safeguard photographs or video of the contents of each room — including the garage — as proof that you own possessions that might be lost or damaged. "An advantage of videotaping possessions is you can narrate, such as 'I bought this table at this store, at this time, it's this brand and cost me this much,'" suggests Jeanne Salvatore of the Insurance Information Institute.
The Insurance Information Institute website has free online software called Know Your Stuff to help you conduct a home inventory. It can be accessed from any computer or via an app for iPhone and Android phones. You may also want to use the Internal Revenue Service workbook "Casualty, Disaster and Theft Loss (PDF)" for estimated fair market value figures of your items lost.
Read it before you need it
The biggest mistake made by disaster-devastated homeowners? "Not knowing beforehand what their policies cover — and don't," says Salvatore. So each year, review your homeowner's policy and ask questions. With replacement cost policies, you're covered for today's cost of replacing damaged possessions. Cash value policies cover items at their depreciated value, which means your reimbursement check will be lower.
And while tornado and fire damage are covered by most homeowner policies, supplemental insurance is needed for earthquakes and flood. (Gauge the flood risk and policy cost for your address at FloodSmart.gov.) There's a 30-day waiting period from the time you buy until the start of flood coverage.