Personal Finance Blog For The Laymen

General Finance

Damage Control for Identity Theft Victims

You receive a call from your credit card company inquiring about a large purchase in progress using your account that you know nothing about. Or perhaps you get a bill from a debt collector relating to an account that you didn’t open. These are some of the ways that people learn they have been the victims of identity theft. If it happens to you, it’s important to act quickly. Here are some of the steps you should take.  

  • Report the problem. If you know that your identity or account has been misused with a certain retailer, financial institution or other organization, or that a credit or ATM card has been stolen, call the related organization immediately to report it. Change any PINs, passwords or logins related to the card or account.
  • Go online to the Federal Trade Commission’s site at to report what’s happened and create a report you can use to demonstrate that you’ve been a victim.
  • If fraudulent bank or investment accounts or lines of credit have been opened in your name, close them and ask the organizations involved to remove any inappropriate charges.
  • Place a fraud alert on your credit reports. This step, which is free, will make it more difficult for new accounts to be opened in your name. Contact one of the three credit rating agencies—Equifax, Experian or TransUnion—with your request and ask them to pass your request on to the other agencies. The initial alert will last 90 days, but you can choose to extend it.
  • Ask the credit agencies to send you a free copy of your credit report. Check for other signs that your identify has been misused—such as bogus accounts set up in your name–and let the related organizations know that fraud has been committed. Ask the agencies to correct your reports.
  • Carefully review other account statements for unauthorized activity.
  • Consider a credit freeze. When you make this request to the credit rating agencies, they won’t share your credit report with new creditors, which prevents thieves from opening new accounts. There may be a fee for this service, but it could be waived if you have experienced identity theft.
  • Consider contacting the police to report the fraudulent activity. Get a copy of the police report in case you need it later to document the crime.
  • Replace any identification that was stolen. For your Social Security card, request a new one by calling 800-772-1213. Report and replace a missing or misused driver’s license to your local motor vehicle bureau. For a missing passport, contact the U.S. State Department at 877-487-2778 or complete a Statement Regarding a Lost or Stolen U.S. Passport Book And/Or Card (Form DS-64) and submit it as noted on the form.
  • Keep a record of these and all the other steps you take in case you need proof of any fraudulent activity and your steps to address it.
  • Remain vigilant and continue to review your credit reports and account statements for signs of misuse. 
General Finance

How to File an Insurance Claim

Here are the steps you need to take if you need to file an insurance claim after a disaster or catastrophic event: 

  1. Collect all policy numbers and insurance company phone numbers. Plan to file a claim even if your home or property is not covered for the type of disaster that occurred, consequential damages may be covered. 
  2. Save receipts for additional living expenses. Many homeowner policies cover additional living expenses such as housing and food costs, temporary residence, additional costs for transportation to and from work and school, and storage expenses. 
  3. Make temporary repairs that are “reasonable and necessary” (if it is safe to do so). For example, cover holes in the roof, walls, doors and windows with plastic or boards to help prevent further weather-related damage. 
  4. Save receipts for any materials purchased. These are reimbursable if they are reasonable and necessary. 
  5. Don’t make extensive repairs. Wait to make extensive repairs until the claims adjuster has been to your home and assessed the damage. 
  6. Find out how the company will process claims. Heavy demands are placed on insurance company personnel in widespread disaster situations and time restrictions may force adjusters to “scope the loss” rather than performing a full evaluation. If the adjuster does not render a full evaluation of the loss on the first visit, secure an appointment for a second visit. 
  7. Keep all paperwork. Keep any paperwork from the insurance company, FEMA or other emergency agencies and store it in a secure location. 
  8. Make an accurate list of the damage. Check your damages list against any inventory you may have made before the disaster occurred or make a pre-disaster inventory from memory. Ask friends and family to help jog your memory for items you had before the disaster. If possible, photograph or video record the damage. Surviving photographs or videos taken in and around your home also may help.  
  9. Don’t throw out damaged furniture or other high-priced items. The adjuster will want to see damages. Be sure to retain clothing, as smoke or water damage can render it unrecoverable.  
  10. Collect all available receipts, canceled checks, credit card statements and invoices. Use these to prove the value of lost possessions, including big-ticket items such as computers or jewelry.  
  11. File claims as quickly as possible. Claims generally are settled in the order received, although the most severe cases may receive the highest priority.  
  12. If destruction is severe and widespread, erect an identifying sign on your property. It might be difficult for a claims adjuster to identify your property in severe situations. A sign with your name, street number, insurance company and contact information can speed up your claim.  

Documenting Lost Items  

Part of preparing for a disaster should include a home inventory. If you don’t have one, here’s how to create one: 

  • Estimate the fair market value of damaged or destroyed items. Look through catalogs, newspaper ads and online retailers.  
  • Determine the current value of vehicles.  
  • Determine the value of land versus building values. Check with your county property tax assessor. 
  • Get a copy of the escrow papers for your home. Your real estate agent, the title company, the escrow company or the bank that handled the purchase or refinance should be able to provide this. 
  • Determine the value of any home improvements you’ve made.  
  • Get probate values of property you may have inherited. Check court records to get the most accurate information.  
  • File Form 4506, “Request for Copy or Transcript of Tax Form,” with the IRS or if someone else prepared your tax returns, contact that person to request copies. 
General Finance

Estate Settlement Checklist

If the worst happens and a loved one passes away during a disaster, you may be involved in the process of settling their estate. Here are the steps to take to ensure that nothing important is missed: 

1. Read the will. If possible, read the will, including all amendments (called codicils) and any related trust documents before the funeral or soon afterwards. Check the time limits for submitting a will to probate court as the first step in settling an estate. If there is no will, the court will appoint an administrator to settle the estate and will divide the property among the survivors according to state laws.  

2. Hire a lawyer. Unless the estate is very small, working with an experienced probate lawyer will make settling it exponentially less stressful for you. Interview two or three lawyers and find out if the lawyer will charge an hourly fee or expect to be paid a percentage of the value of the estate—do not be afraid to ask how much it will cost. 

3. Carry out the duties of the executor, if required. If you are named executor of the will, additional responsibilities await you. A lawyer and/or CPA can help you with these duties, which may include: 

  • Locating financial and legal documents and providing them to the lawyer or CPA. 
  • Taking an inventory of the estate’s assets, including any employee benefits.
  • Opening an estate checking account to pay bills while the estate is being settled.
  • Applying for life insurance proceeds and seeking financial advice on the best way to receive a payout — for example, as a lump sum, an installment payment or an annuity and searching for lost insurance policies. 
  • Hiring qualified appraisers to place an appropriate value on business interests, real estate and personal property. 
  • Making sure that any property owned by the deceased person is insured and not at risk of vandalism or theft.
  • Paying the deceased’s debts and, if necessary, selling assets to pay debts. 
  • Working with a CPA or other tax adviser to file the appropriate federal, state and local income, estate and inheritance tax returns.  
  • Transferring insurance, retirement and other benefits to the appropriate beneficiaries. Seek professional advice on the options available to beneficiaries.
  • Renaming beneficiaries on insurance policies, retirement accounts and other accounts as appropriate. 
  • Changing titles on vehicles and other property according to state laws. Alert the new owners to make sure the property is insured. 
  • Distributing the remaining assets according to the will, trust or state laws. 

4. Give yourself time. As much as possible, refrain from making any immediate decisions that involve large sales, purchases, investments and other major changes. Stock options may need to be exercised within a year of the owner’s death. When well-meaning people start offering advice, respond with a statement such as, “I appreciate your ideas and will take them into consideration when I’m ready to make those decisions.” 

For more information, check out our full guide, Disasters and Financial Planning: A Guide for Preparedness and Recovery, created in collaboration with the American Red Cross as a public service by the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE).  

General Finance

How to Protect Your Records

Coping with a disaster is difficult under any circumstance, but the trauma is multiplied when vital records are lost. If you haven’t done so already, take a few hours to organize your important documents and put them in a safe place. Even if you never experience a disaster, the peace of mind gained from organizing your records is well worth the few hours spent on this important task.  

Where to store your records 

A safe deposit box or home safe are two common ways to protect your records 

and other irreplaceable items. Ideally you should store originals of records that would be difficult to replace in a safe deposit box at a bank. Consider using a bank that is some distance from your home to decrease the chances of the bank being affected by the same disaster. 

What to keep in your safe deposit box 

  • Birth, death and marriage certificates  
  • Divorce and child custody papers  
  • Adoption papers  
  • Passports  
  • Military records  
  • Social Security cards  
  • Copies of driver’s licenses  
  • Mortgage/property deeds  
  • Stock and bond certificates  
  • Car titles  
  • List of insurance policies (life, health, disability, long-term care, auto, homeowners and renters), including the type, company, policy number and name of insured  
  • Copies of power of attorney, living will and other medical powers  
  • Trust documents 

What to add to your disaster supply kit 

Keep copies of essential household records in your disaster supplies kit so they’re handy if you need to evacuate. Think about the records you would need to take with you if you suddenly had to evacuate your home during a disaster.  

Consider making copies of all the records you have stored in your bank safe deposit box or home safe and put them in a portable, fire-resistant, waterproof box that you keep easily accessible. (You might want to keep irreplaceable keepsakes and photographs in this box, too.)  

Additional records to keep in your disaster supplies kit might include:  

  • Letter of intent to your loved ones in case you are not there to help them through a disaster.  
  • Federal and state tax returns (if you have room, store all your returns here, but if not, at least keep the three most recent ones in the kit).  
  • Copies of important medical information including your health insurance card, doctor’s name(s) and phone numbers, immunization records and prescriptions (including prescriptions for glasses and contacts).  
  • Home improvement records.  
  • Inventory of your possessions, which can also be stored online.  
  • Warranties and receipts for major purchases.  
  • Appraisals of jewelry, collectibles, artwork and other valuable items.  
  • Credit card records.  
  • Retirement account records.  
  • Recent checking, savings and investment account statements.  
  • Rental agreement, lease and/or mortgage documents.  
  • Recent pay stubs and employee benefits information.  
  • List of emergency contacts, including doctors, financial advisers and family members.  
  • Backups of critical digital information, such as any accounting files.  
  • Safe deposit box information (location, contents and key).  

Once or twice a year, go through your safe and disaster supplies kit to make sure your records are up to date. Be sure to update your records after making major purchases or completing major remodeling projects. 

General Finance

Protecting Your Loved Ones

One of the most important things you can do for your loved ones is to prepare for the day when you’ll no longer be there to care for them. Everyone — regardless of age — should plan their estate. Having an up-to-date estate plan in place will be even more important if you’re unexpectedly injured or killed in a disaster. 

What is Estate Planning?  

Your estate is everything you own, and you need estate planning documents to ensure that your possessions and assets are distributed according to your wishes. In addition, these documents cover your health care wishes and who should take custody of your children and/or pets.  

Engage the professional team that you already work with to make sure that your actions and intentions are aligned. Having a well-articulated financial plan prior to engaging an estate planning attorney will be key in the implementation of a plan that is consistent with your family’s wishes. Your CPA will be able to contribute to the discussion of the important tax implications of the estate planning strategy.  

It’s a good idea to hire a lawyer who is thoroughly experienced with estate planning methods and techniques to assist you. If you don’t have money to pay a lawyer, call a legal aid clinic or a law school and ask if they can help you for a reduced rate or for free. Or check to see if you have any legal benefits through your EAP at work. 

Here are the documents that typically make up a complete estate plan: 

  • Living trust and/or will: This is your most important document. It names your heirs — the people you want to receive your money and other possessions when you die — and appoints a guardian if you have minor children. If you die without a will, the state will decide who gets your money and who will take care of your children. 
  • Durable power of attorney: This document names the person (or other entity) you want to pay your bills and manage your money if you become ill or incapacitated and are unable to make these types of decisions. 
  • Health care proxy: In a health care proxy, you name a person who will make decisions about your health care if you get sick and cannot make those decisions for yourself. 
  • Living will: A living will explains what types of medical treatment you want, or don’t want, if you get sick and are unable to communicate your wishes. 
  • Beneficiary documents: If you have life insurance, a retirement account or certain other types of investments, you must name beneficiaries — the person(s) or trust(s) that will inherit the money if you die. 

You may also want to consider drafting a letter of intent. It’s not a legal document, but it can be helpful in telling other people where things are and what you want to happen at your death (or if you are seriously injured and unable to communicate your wishes). Think of a letter of intent as something that you would give to someone if you were leaving on a yearlong trip tomorrow morning. Make sure the letter of intent is stored in a safe place and be sure to tell several people where it is. Even better, share copies of your letter of intent with anyone who would be involved in managing your affairs if you were killed or seriously injured in a disaster.  

What to Include in a Letter of Intent  

  • Where important documents are located.  
  • The names and phone numbers of your financial and legal advisers, your employer and other people your loved ones may need to contact.  
  • Your wishes for your funeral and information about any prepaid burial plans.  
  • A financial inventory to explain to your loved ones what income, investments or insurance proceeds they can expect to receive, and what expenses and other bills may come due. Include information about retirement plans, employee benefit plans, employer-sponsored life insurance coverage, vacation pay, business expenses that may not have been reimbursed, personal property you keep at work, car loans, home mortgages, and so on.  
  • Your wishes for raising and educating your children and any financial arrangements you have made to accomplish these goals.  
  • Your wishes for your pets.

For more information, check out our full guide, Disasters and Financial Planning: A Guide for Preparedness and Recovery, created in collaboration with the American Red Cross as a public service by the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE).  

General Finance

Making a Disaster Plan

In the face of disaster, all that matters is the safety of you and your loved ones. Having a plan in place will help to ensure you can focus on what’s most important, while also minimizing the financial impact.  

No two disaster plans will be the same, so it’s important to consider your unique circumstances, like the layout of your home, the ages and mobility of each resident, communication channels, etc. Here is a basic checklist to get you started: 

  • Create a supply kit. 
  • Know what emergencies are most likely to happen in your area. 
  • Identify potential risks in your home. 
  • Know your utilities. 
  • Identify your safe place.  
  • Make an evacuation plan. 
  • Make an emergency communication plan. 
  • Assign responsibilities. 
  • Create a plan for special needs.  
  • Post emergency phone numbers in an open and obvious place. 
  • Designate a meet-up location. 
  • Prepare for stress. 

Let’s break down each. 

Create a supply kit. 

Pull together everything you might need in the wake of a disaster. The general recommendation is to include supplies for at least three days and up to two weeks. Keep everything in easy-to-carry containers, like backpacks or duffle bags, so you’re ready to “grab and go.” You may also want to keep a smaller version in your car. For a list of suggested items, visit

Know what emergencies are most likely to happen in your area.  

This includes weather, like flood, tornado, hurricane, etc., as well as man-made, like from a chemical plant or power station. Risks vary depending on if you live in the city or in a more rural location. Your local American Red Cross or emergency management agency can help you learn what the greatest risks are in your area.  

Know the dangers in your home.  

At least once a year, look through your home for potential risks, like blocked exits, old appliances, leaning trees, etc. Identifying these risks can help you keep an eye out the warning signs of a dangerous situation in or around your home. 

Know your utilities.  

Learn how to turn your utilities, like water, gas and electric, off and on. Check your smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers once a month, and change the batteries every year.  

Identify your safe place.  

In the case of severe weather, where should you go for safety? Your safe place might change depending on the situation. For example, a flood vs. tornado vs. fire.   

Make an evacuation plan.  

If you must evacuate, does everyone in the house know where to go? Practice fire and emergency evacuation drills at least twice a year. Imagine that you could take only one suitcase or pack a single carload. What would you take? Agree on this ahead of time and adjust if there is a change in your household.  

Make an emergency communication plan.  

Who will be the designated contact to share important information? If you have children, who is the backup contact if you’re unreachable? How will you communicate that information? 

Assign responsibilities. 

For example, who is in charge of the family pet? What about important documents? How will your emergency plan change if someone assigned a responsibility isn’t home?  

Create a plan for special needs.  

If you or someone in your house has special needs, as in the case of a disability, it’s especially important to have a plan in place. Include information on any needs, medications, back-up equipment, etc. in your supply kit. Many local emergency services maintain a registry so that you can let them know exactly what type of help you would need in an emergency.  

Post emergency phone numbers in an open and obvious place. 

Make sure everyone knows how to reach family and friends in case of emergency. Consider having a designated contact who can help notify the rest of your list, that way you only have to make one call.  

Designate a meet-up location. 

If you’re away from home when disaster strikes, and phones are down, where will your family regroup? Always listen to warnings from emergency response teams. Do not attempt to access roads or buildings that have been deemed unsafe. 

Prepare for stress. 

Stress is inevitable during and after experiencing a disaster. Although there’s no way to avoid it, the more prepared you are, the better equipped you’ll be to handle it. Practicing coping skills in your daily life can be an extra step in improving how you handle stress.  

General Finance

Where can I find help after a disaster?

While help is often available when disaster strikes, it’s best to be as prepared as possible to ensure that you and your family are covered. The following agencies and organizations can help you plan for potential disasters and often offer assistance in emergency situations:  

  • State and county offices of emergency preparedness – Do an Internet search for your state or county and “emergency preparedness.”  
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – Visit to learn more about preparing for and responding to emergencies.  
  • Department of Homeland Security – For information related to terrorist events, call the Department of Homeland Security at 800.BE.READY (800.237.3239), or visit
  • American Red Cross – Visit and enter your ZIP code in the “Find Your Local Red Cross” area or click or tap on “Plan and Prepare” to see many more facts and tips on disaster preparedness. Call your local chapter for more specific information. Download disaster-specific apps for your smartphone at  
  • Salvation Army – Visit  
  • Volunteers of America – Call 800.899.0089 or visit  
  • National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster – Visit