A house or business fire can be absolutely devastating in terms of physical destruction as well as mental and emotional damage. You may feel so overwhelmed that you’re not sure what you need to do first.
To start, take a deep breath and let it out slowly. You’ve got this!
Next, you should contact your insurance agency and report the disaster as soon as possible. Not only will they start the recovery process rolling, but they will point you in the right direction as far as your next steps.
Contacting your insurance company right away provides you with another valuable service: it starts your paper trail. It’s important to note that losing your vital tax documents in a natural disaster doesn’t make you exempt from the requirement to provide proof if the IRS decides to audit you. However, if you completely lost everything, having a claim on your insurance at least provides documentation that you did your due diligence in the wake of a disaster.
Once you’ve started the process with your insurance company, the next most important thing to do is work on recovering your essential documents. Before you enter your house, be sure that the fire department or emergency management authority says that it’s safe enough to go through. Fire, earthquakes, wind, and water can weaken structures so that they look safe but actually aren’t.
Once you get the go-ahead, carefully look through your house or business for your identification documents. Even if you can only find part of your paperwork, that can save you a lot of time and headache down the line.
Here’s a list of important documents and how to replace them in the event that they are damaged or destroyed:
Your birth certificate is one of those documents that you will need in a lot of situations, so you might as well start by getting a duplicate. Contact the Vital Record’s Office of the state you were born in to ask their process for getting a copy. Most likely they will have you send them between $10 and $20 and ask for a copy of your ID or driver’s license. If you also lost your driver’s license in the disaster, your state may give you the option of having your parents swear under oath as to your identity and birthday.
ID or Driver’s License
Some states allow you to get a new driver’s license online. Unfortunately, Utah is not one of those states, so you will need to go in person to the driver’s license office and bring an identity document, two Utah resident documents (if your license doesn’t have your Utah address), and a Social Security number document. This website has a list of all accepted paperwork.
Marriage Certificate/Divorce Decree
If your name is different than what is on your identification documents, loans, car titles, etc., you will need to get a replacement copy of your marriage certificate or divorce decree. Contact your state’s Vital Records office or the county clerk’s office where you got married/divorced to secure a copy.
In the event that you adopted a child and the paperwork proving it was lost in the disaster, you will need to get a replacement adoption decree. Contact the county clerk’s office where the adoption took place, and they will be able to help you fill out the appropriate paperwork for a replacement.
Contact the Vital Records Office in the state where the death happened. There may be a small fee associated with getting a copy.
Social Security Card
To get a new Social Security Card, visit your local Social Security Office. When you go, be sure to bring some kind of proof of citizenship (ex: birth certificate) and proof of identity (ex: driver’s license). Note that you are limited to three replacements a year with a total of 10 replacements over your entire lifetime.
If you need to get a replacement copy of your vehicle’s title, go down to the DMV with your ID and fill out the application for a new title.
Deed to House
To replace the deed to your house, go to the county courthouse, pay the fee, and fill out the application for a replacement.
Contact the Medicare or Medicaid office for instructions on how to get a replacement card.
To replace destroyed savings bonds, go to the Treasury Direct website and fill out the 1048 Claim for Lost, Stolen, or Destroyed United States Savings Bonds. You may need to visit your financial institution to have your signature on the form certified. You can mail in the form using the address on the website.
While this isn’t an all-inclusive list of the documents that you’ll need if your files were destroyed, it’s a pretty good start. As a good rule-of-thumb, you should call your bank, mortgage lender, and credit card companies right after a disaster as well, so they can help you manage the logistics on their side of things as well as keep an eye out for fraudulent activity.
One last thing that may be helpful for you in the future: back up your important purchases and tax documents on “The Cloud.” Remember: having your belongs destroyed by a disaster doesn’t make you less accountable to the IRS. Whenever possible, take scans of your receipts and other purchase agreements and upload them to an online storage center, your email, or your accounting software. Several scanner apps are available for smartphones that let you capture images of receipts and other documentation. This a smart practice for keeping track of important documents as a “just in case.”
And finally, if a fire or other disaster has ravaged your home, make sure to call in fire restoration specialists. They can help assess and mitigate damages so that you don’t jeopardize your health or move back in without thoroughly taking care of unsafe conditions.