After Hurricane Katrina, we're all being told to do some disaster planning. Create an evacuation box that contains your key personal documents, experts say.
Yet Connie Bracher, a California tax professional, learned from experience that even the well prepared can't plan for the unexpected.
When Bracher's Crestline, Calif., neighborhood was being threatened by wildfires last year, she wasn't allowed to return to her home.
"If you have a disaster box with your important papers, what happens if you can't get back into your home to retrieve it?" asked Bracher, who knows all too well that in the wake of a disaster such as a fire, hurricane or earthquake, records may have to be reconstructed in order to prove a loss. After all, what happens if the bank where you rented a safe-deposit box for all your vital records is destroyed?
The best way to protect your documents is to put them on a computer disk or flash drive and give them to a friend or trusted family member who doesn't live near you, says Bracher, who is an enrolled agent and chairman of the disaster committee of the California Society of Enrolled Agents. (Enrolled agents are individuals licensed by the federal government to represent taxpayers before the Internal Revenue Service.) However, if you don't take her advice and your documents are destroyed, there is one good place to start your reconstruction -- your tax return.
You can find some details about -- or at least construct a listing of -- bank and investment accounts because you have to declare interest and dividend income. If you own property, information about that is included on your return, and there's employment information found on the W-2 form you submitted.
Taxpayers have two options for getting copies of their federal returns -- tax return transcripts and tax account transcripts -- and either can be ordered by phone or by mail.
A tax return transcript shows most line items from your return as it was originally filed, including any accompanying forms and schedules. A tax account transcript shows any later adjustments either you or the IRS made after the return was filed. This transcript also will have basic data, including marital status, type of returned filed, adjusted gross income and taxable income.
The transcript can be ordered by completing a Form 4506-T or calling 800-829-1040. There is no charge for the transcript, and you should receive it in about two weeks from the time the IRS receives your request. Return transcripts are generally available for the current and past three years.
If you need a photocopy of a previously processed tax return and attachments, complete Form 4506, "Request for Copy of Tax Return." Copies are generally available for the current year and past six years. You can download the forms at www.irs.gov, or you can order them by calling the IRS at 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).
Typically, the IRS charges $39 for each return photocopy. But the fee is waived if you are the victim of a declared disaster. The IRS also expedites requests from disaster victims. For example, victims of the recent catastrophe on the Gulf Coast just need to write "Hurricane Katrina" in red at the top of Form 4506 or Form 4506-T, an IRS spokesman said.
Bracher said if you are the victim of a fire or some other disaster, you should always make a notation in red on the top of the IRS form. That way, your form can be expedited, and the fee is usually waived.
Here are some other examples from the California Society of Enrolled Agents concerning the documents you should have and how to reconstruct the information should it be destroyed:
* Copies of final escrow and settlement papers for your home purchase. If they're lost or destroyed, contact the title company, escrow company or the lending institution that handled your purchase to obtain copies of the paperwork.
* Information about home improvements. You'll want to know how much you spent on your principal residence in order to add the amount to your "cost basis" and calculate your profit when you sell. If you used a contractor, see if the company kept any records. If that doesn't work, obtain a written statement verifying the work and cost. Get accounts from friends and relatives who saw the house before and after the improvements. Perhaps they have photos taken at get-togethers. If you obtained a home improvement loan to do the work, get that paperwork from the bank. The amount of the loan may help establish the cost of the improvements.
* Copies of birth and marriage certificates, citizenship papers, Social Security cards, green cards, and driver's licenses. Contact the appropriate agencies to get copies. If, for example, you need to get Social Security benefits and you don't have identification, you will be asked a series of questions to confirm the information that is maintained in your Social Security files, said Dorothy Clark, a spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration.
* A list of investment account numbers, bank accounts and credit card numbers.
* Some document -- a utility bill? -- that shows your street address. During the Hurricane Katrina crisis, the displaced who have been staying in motels and hotels have only to show some proof that they are residents of one of the affected Zip codes and the hotels know to pass the unpaid room bills on to the Red Cross, which will pay them.
Generally, many companies and government agencies have methods in place to help disaster victims access their accounts, obtain payments or re-create lost documents. For instance, Sarah Bulgatz, a spokeswoman for the Charles Schwab brokerage, said the company has a variety of ways to authenticate someone's identity so that the person can access his or her money.
For more information on document reconstruction, call the California Society of Enrolled Agents toll-free at 800-777-2732 or go online at www.csea.org. Click on the link for "Taxpayer Help" and then "Disaster Recovery."
The sad fact is, no matter how prepared you think you are, you may still find you have to reconstruct your financial files. Although such a task may not be easy, it's not impossible.
Researcher Lorraine Denis-Cooper contributed to this column.
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