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Legal Woes Can Accompany Sandy Clean Up [AUDIO]

MORE: NJ Recovering From Sandy

As the cleanup from the Super Storm Sandy gets underway, residents could find themselves spending less over tearing out walls and carpet and tearing through insurance claims and legal liabilities.

Hurricane Sandy damage in Holgate, Mystic Islands, Ortley Beach and Lavalette,
Hurricane Sandy damage in Holgate, Mystic Islands, Ortley Beach and Lavalette ((Governor’s Office/Tim Larsen)

Attorney Steven Leone of the Toms River firm Caluccio, Leone, Dimon, Doyle, and Sacks says many of the legal circumstances people may be facing are actually issues that have risen in the past, but now are all coming back at once.

As people are returning to their home on the barrier islands, they might find them destroyed by the Sandy to the point of being uninhabitable. However, even though you might not have a home to live in it doesn’t mean your taxes go anywhere.

Leone explains taxes on real estate that has been destroyed remain for the duration of the year those taxes have been assessed. Residents have no legal rights to a tax abatement or reduction for the 2012 year since the assessments are fixed as of October for the prior year and start on January 1st.

That means the 2013 assessment have been already completed before Sandy hit, and Leone says there is a provision in the law that assessors can reassess a property if it was damaged between October 1st and December 31st. However you have to give your municipal tax assessor notice to do it by the end of the year.

“In order to get the benefit of that [lower tax assessment] you’ve got to give the tax assessors notice in a request to reassess your property by December 31st.

If the assessment is not reduced sufficiently Leone notes you have until April 1st to file a tax appeal.

Insurance is also a potential hornets’ nest, since policies differ so vastly between residents. Leone says it’s important to understand the coverage you have. Governor Christie ruled that Sandy was superstorm, not a hurricane. Leone says that could help, since many insurance policies that cover hurricane damage have a deductible between 2-5% of the policy amount.

“So if your house is worth five hundred thousand dollars, and you have a five percent deductible it’s a twenty five thousand dollar deductible. So that’s serious.”

Since wind and flooding are the most likely causes of damage during the storm, Leone says it’s important to make sure flooding is in your policy since it’s often needed for covering the physical home and the contents inside. Most homeowners policies generally don’t cover flooding.

In many cases, Leone says insurance agencies will send an adjuster to inspect your property and after making their assessment give you money. However he warns not to rush and accept the check right away.

“There’s always the ability to hire a public adjuster to review the claim and advance your clain in an independent way from the insurance companies adjuster. Not saying that they don’t do a good job and they don’t do a fair job and maybe the best job, but just take a breath after it’s done and see if it makes sense.”

Since there is a time limit within which you can file your claims (often based on your specific policy and coverage), Leone says he advises that policy holders always file a claim, and let the insurance company figure out of you are covered.

“Let the insurance company and the agents for the company determine whether or not there’s coverage.”

Leone also advises to apply for FEMA if that is an option, noting they can make the decision of whether you qualify for funding.

If the storm caused freak accidents to occur then you will have to deal with issues of liability, however Leone notes that becomes a much grayer area at times.

He says one of the least appreciated situations where a property owners could seek liability damages is in contamination of property. That could be an oil tanker spilling onto your property or sewage from a nearby body of water washing up.

Even the common instance of a tree limb falling into a neighbor’s yard isn’t a black or white solution.

“Depends on whether you had notice of the tree , whether it was a sick tree or a healthy tree. These are not simple answers that are why it’s important to examine them all and not make presumptive decisions about it before you know all the facts.”

Renters could face similar problems. While Leone says in many instances a lease agreement can be exited if the residents is unlivable, the length of time a tenant would have to wait could vary depending on contract.

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