Documentation Cubed

by Mark Goldwich

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Everyone knows when it comes to real estate there are only 3 things that matter – location, location, location.  Similarly, when it comes to insurance claims, the key is documentation, documentation, and you guessed it, documentation.

I can do several blog posts on subjects like, “The 5 most common mistakes made by policyholders". But when you boil it all down, many of those mistakes can be avoided if you start with documentation. Now, I can tell you the word “documentation” can mean different things to different people. We all know the person that takes their shoe box overflowing with random receipts and bills to their accountant on April 14th and proudly says, “There’s my documentation, all organized for you!”

Sure, the accountant can fix it, after filing an extension for that person, and a little cursing, but he or she will probably charge more for all the extra time it takes sorting out that mess. So, when we talk about documentation, we are really talking about documentation that is organized and meaningful, not just random, illegible bits of information.

At the start of every claim, I recommend people get out a legal pad, so they can keep track of every conversation and activity that relates to the claim, and keep it in chronological order. Start by noting the time and date of the loss, what happened, what was damaged, and other relevant details (maybe other parties were involved, where it happened, how, etc.). Make detailed notes of every phone conversation (especially those with the insurance company adjusters), appointments with adjusters, contractors, etc., other activities related to the loss, and of course you want to record what has been damaged or destroyed.

For property claims, this can usually be broken down into 2 main areas: structural damage, and
damage to personal property. Most people have a tough time detailing structural damage. Simply do your best to take photos or video. And when it comes to personal property, especially after a large loss like a fire, tornado or hurricane, this can seem especially overwhelming. My suggestion is that you tackle the task the same way you would eat an elephant – one bite at a time. Start in one room, and move to one corner of the room. If needed, zero in on one piece of furniture, like a dresser, and focus on the top left drawer, and continue methodically from there. I recommend you do this for no more than 60 minutes at a time, taking a 15-30 minute break. You may wish to hire a company to help you with this task.

Depending on the size of the loss and your abilities, hiring someone to help document a large personal property loss could well be worth it. I have personally seen clients so stressed out by the event that damaged the property, that the thought of documenting the loss was more than they could bear. They would rather walk away from tens of thousands of dollars than risk their very sanity.

Needless to say, if you are really up on your documentation, you already have a complete inventory of everything in your home, complete with description, date and place of purchase, photo, receipt, owner’s manual, etc., before the loss ever even happens. Just be warned, your insurance company may believe such attention to detail and foresight suggests the loss was planned. Sometimes you just can’t win!

In addition to the legal pad, you might want to use a folder or binder to keep related bills, estimates,
Courtesy of
receipts, letters, and other documents you obtain or produce during the claim aftermath. If these items are not dated when you receive them, place the date you received the document on them* and try to maintain them in chronological order.

*Note: some attorneys might advise against writing directly on a document you did not personally create. I am not an attorney, and I am not giving legal advice here, but in my experience, if you can explain what you wrote, when you wrote it, and why you wrote it, you should be fine. And by all means, when in doubt, ask an attorney.

The point is, in addition to maintaining your documentation, and categorizing your documentation, sometimes you need to document your documentation.  You also need to understand your documentation. This can be difficult, especially if the documentation is handwritten with poor penmanship and grammar, or is of a technical nature.  Whoever is providing the documentation needs to understand what it is they are giving you, and they should be willing to explain it to you. This is where that legal pad comes in handy again. If you don’t understand what the documentation says, how are you going to explain it to someone else?  If no one understands it, what good is it?

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So, there you are, taking notes of every conversation you have with every person related to the claim in any way.  You are keeping every related document in order, and you understand what they mean. You have a list of everything that is missing or damaged. Now, when your adjuster asks you to prove your claim to them, you can make it all but impossible for them to do anything but pay your claim promptly and fully. And if they don’t, you have everything you need to take matters to the next level, whatever that may be.

It may sound like a good deal of work to document your claim, but just think about what happens if
you don’t – that is the stuff “5 most common mistakes” lists are made of. The stress, heartache and financial repercussions from failing to document your loss can be tremendous, and trying to document and organize everything after the claim starts to go south can be more work than doing it to begin with.

Documenting and organizing from the start, and consistently throughout, will take much of the stress out of the process, leaving you more confident and comfortable with everything that is happening. It can be the difference between feeling like a victim, or feeling like you are in control. 

Mark Goldwich is president of Gold Star Adjusters, a group of public insurance adjusters dedicated to helping citizens get the maximum settlement for any insurance claim.

1 comment:

  1. It amazes me how many hoops the insurance companies make you jump through in order to get them to pay.