Legal problems surface as flood waters recede: Four questions to answer BEFORE disaster hits


Over the past month we’ve seen heartbreaking photos from Colorado: homes washed off their foundations, stores filled with mud a foot deep, livestock perched on islands in a sea of brown water.

Insurmountable legal problems

Pain of dealing with legal problems

Our first concern is for the lives of the people involved. Then, typically, the news coverage moves on, and we are left to our imagination to consider the mess left behind.

Physical mess we understand. But what about the legal mess?

Physical mess we understand. Mud, water, shovels, sweat.

But every picture of a damaged car or home, of a business or farm or highway, represents a potential legal problem, a problem that could last weeks or months and complicate that family’s life forever.

Can we prepare for legal disasters? Yes, we can.

Here are a few questions every family needs to be able to answer.

1. Can you prove who you are?

These days many, many “families” are not legally related. Some family members may not be legal citizens. In an emergency, your problems will be magnified if you don’t have the documents to prove who you are and your legal relationships to others. These documents may include a rent agreement, custody for children or powers of attorney for parents. Have copies of these documents made and store the originals in a bank safety deposit box if possible.

2. Can you prove that you own the lost or damaged property?

Several years ago when a mobile home park in California was evacuated at 4 a.m., residents had no time to gather important papers. 80% of the homes burned to the ground. Months later those homeowners were still having problems proving they had owned the property! Again, add ownership documents (car, home, insurance) to your “Go-Bag” so you can grab it and take it with you even if you have only minutes. Electronic copies work as well as originals in this case.

3. How will your personal obligations be handled if you are out of work or out of your home?

Bills don’t stop just because your house has been flooded. If you pay by check, your check and checkbook may have been lost. If you pay bills automatically, you’ll at least have a few days reprieve. In any case, you’ll need to notify all your creditors of the situation. Do you have a list of who they are and how to contact them?

4. What about business contracts if your business is shut down?

Once you’ve ascertained that your employees are safe, you’ll turn to keeping the business alive. Do you have standing orders for delivery of product – either to or from the place of business? What happens when you default on those contracts? Does your business emergency plan include contacting all employees regarding the work schedule, contacting all vendors and customers to tell them what to expect? What about being ready with an announcement to the news media? These communications plans need to be set up BEFORE anything happens.

These aren’t all the legal problems that may come up, but if you have made preparations to handle at least these four questions, you’ll be in a lot better position to make it though a natural disaster.


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