If you are affected by a natural disaster, including bushfire, floods or other event, and you hold a relevant policy of insurance, you have a number of rights and obligations.
What you need to do
In the immediate period after it is safe to return to your property, and you have suffered property damage, you should advise your insurance company of your possible claim. If you are unsure of your insurance company’s details, you can call the Insurance Council of Australia.
If your documents have been destroyed, don’t worry. Your insurer will have them electronically and generally only needs your name and address to find the information. Most insurance policies cover for bushfire, but may not cover damage due to other types of events, such as flooding. Check your policy wording and if you do not understand the policy, ask your insurer to explain.
Once you have notified your insurer, you will be given a claim number. If you are told that you cannot make a claim, or you are not given a claim number, you should seek legal advice immediately.
It may be possible to access government assistance in the short term to deal with immediate needs. You should ask Centrelink or visit sa.gov.au for further information.
Assessing the Damage
You need to take pictures of the damaged items and property, especially if they have to be discarded due to health risks. It is usual to wait for an assessor appointed by the insurer to come and inspect the damage before a clean-up commences.
If it is necessary to do emergency repairs, ensure that you take photographs first, and keep receipts of all expenses to add to your claim. You should let the insurer know that you are doing the repairs before you start.
Depending on the amount of damage, an assessor will be appointed to inspect the damage, although it may take some time if many properties have been affected. Your insurer is required to keep you informed of progress of your claim, and advise when the assessor will come.
You should make a list of the items that have either been damaged or destroyed. It may be difficult to remember what you had, but you can ask the assessor to help. You do not have to provide receipts serial numbers or other detailed information – if you have been asked to provide this level of detail about your property, get legal advice.
Expected Time Frames
Under the Insurance Code of Practice, if there are Exceptional Circumstances, such as those associated with a particular natural disaster which is classified as a catastrophe, the insurer has up to twelve months from the date of lodging the claim to decide whether or not to accept your claim.
If you have urgent financial needs, you can ask your insurance company to provide you with an advance payment to assist you whilst the claim is being assessed. You can also ask for your claim to be fast-tracked. You will need to provide reasonable proof of the need, and the insurer must provide the payment within 5 days of receiving your information. This amount will be deducted from your overall claim.
If your claim is finalised within one month of a catastrophe, you still have up to twelve months after the finalisation of the claim to ask for a review if you are unhappy with the outcome. This is so even if you have signed a release form.
If Your Claim is Rejected
If your claim is rejected or your insurer is telling you that the policy does not apply and you are not happy with the decision, or you have not heard anything from the insurer, you should lodge a dispute with the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (formerly the Financial Ombudsman Service). More information about the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) can be located on the AFCA website.
If you are unsure about your rights, you should seek legal advice. You can ring the Legal Services Commission of SA Helpline on 1300 366 424 for free advice.
The content of the Law Handbook is made available as a public service for information purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for legal advice. See Disclaimer for details. For free and confidential legal advice in South Australia call 1300 366 424.