COLUMBIA, Mo. - Disaster victims may recoup some of their uninsured losses because uncompensated property losses from natural disasters are tax deductible, said a University of Missouri Extension consumer and family economics specialist.
But the first thing you should do is contact your insurance agent, said Brenda Procter. "A lot of people incorrectly assume certain things aren't covered or are covered. If you don't call your agent and find out what's covered, you might do something to put that coverage at risk."
It can take time for an agent to get to your property following a catastrophe, Procter notes. "It's your responsibility to protect your property from further loss." This may include boarding up windows, covering holes in the roof or moving property out of harm's way. "To the extent possible, do nothing other than this before the agent arrives. They need to see the original damage firsthand."
Personal property that has been damaged extensively should be appraised soon after the disaster. A professional estimate of value will serve as evidence for casualty loss claims. The appraisal fee itself is tax deductible.
When declaring casualty loss on your tax return, you have to subtract from that amount any money you received from insurance or salvage related to the loss. The amount is further reduced by $100 plus 10 percent of your adjusted gross income. The deduction is limited to the cost basis or the fair market value at the time of the disaster, whichever is less, Procter said.
If you live in an area that has been declared a federal disaster area, you may qualify for additional help through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). "It's really important to talk to a FEMA representative as soon as you can to find out what assistance is available," she said.
Proper record keeping is crucial for disaster victims filing insurance claims, declaring losses on their income tax or applying for FEMA assistance. Property owners should do the following to demonstrate loss:
-Note the kind of disaster, when it occurred and that the damage was a direct result of the disaster.
-Show you are the owner of the damaged property.
-Find a record listing the cost of the property and show the cost of any improvements.
-Have appraisals showing fair market value before and after the disaster.
-Show proof of any insurance benefits or other compensation received, including free repairs, restoration and cleanup from any disaster relief agencies.
Records that serve as good supporting evidence for casualty claims include receipts, canceled checks, deeds, purchase contracts and professional appraisals. Of course, it's best to gather these records and store them in a safe place before a disaster strikes, but if you haven't done this you can help document your loss by taking photographs.
"I would take a picture of everything, inside and out," Procter said. "Go over every single inch of your property and take pictures, so if the insurance adjuster tries to argue with you about something, you can pop out a picture."
For more information about tax deductions, Procter directs people to IRS Publication 574, available online at http://www.irs.gov/publications/p547/. While you might not see any tax benefits until next year, finding out what those benefits will be can help your post-disaster planning.
"You have all kinds of financial decisions to make in a totally different context because of the loss," she said. "Getting deductions makes a big difference. It's good to know that ahead of time so you know you have something to work with."
For more information about disaster assistance from FEMA, see http://www.fema.gov/assistance/or call 800-621-3362.
For links to disaster-related resources from MU Extension, including publications, news, feature articles and videos, see http://bit.ly/MUExtDisasterResources.