With Winter Storms Felling Trees, Do You Know What Your Homeowners’ Insurance Covers?

treefallStrong winds, heavy rain, and flooding are in the news in various parts of the U.S. this winter, and are all major forces in felling trees. Just this week, the National Weather Service issued high wind advisories for Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, and Montana, and also warned that, “The gusty winds could blow down weaker trees and branches.”

If you’re hearing the wind whip up outside your house, and there are any large trees nearby, now might be a good time to review the terms of your homeowners’ insurance policy.

If your policy is like most, it will cover repair costs associated with having wind blow one of your trees onto your house, garage, fence, or other structures. The same goes if the damage was caused by snow, hail, or sleet. The extent of coverage depends on your policy limits; and remember that you’ll have to pay your deductible first.

Your policy is less likely to cover damage to your landscaping.

Watch out, however: If the insurance company finds that you were negligent in caring for the tree–for example, failed to remove a large dead branch–it can deny you coverage, based on the concept that you yourself were a major cause of the damage.

Who owns the tree is not a key issue. Even it it’s your neighbor’s tree, your policy should cover the damage–again, assuming that your neighbors were not negligent in their tree care. If they were, your insurance company may help you go after theirs for coverage; or you may have to pursue a separate legal claim against the neighbors.

Also realize that homeowners’ insurance policies commonly do NOT cover the costs of removing a tree that simply falls over in your yard, large and unwieldy though it might be. Removal costs can quickly run into the thousands of dollars. Angie’s List offers some helpful advice on this, and warns against attempting tree removal on your own!

What if a tree falls on your car? Look to your auto insurance policy, assuming you didn’t waive “comprehensive coverage.” (If you took out a car loan, you probably lucked out on this issue–your lender likely insisted on comprehensive coverage.)

How about if the tree falls into the street? Your city may be willing to take care of removal, but you’ll need to look into this further.

For more information, see the homeowners’ insurance and neighbors sections of Nolo’s website.

The O Visa Wouldn’t Be So Popular If the H-1Bs Didn’t Always Run Out!

nobel_226pxAs explained in a recent Daily Journal article titled “Demand for extraordinary worker visas grows,” by Steven Crighton, a temporary (nonimmigrant) visa that’s sort of a pain to get–and not even profitable for lawyers to help with, in most cases–has been zooming upward in popularity recently.

It’s the O-1 visa, meant for outstanding workers who have a job offer in the U.S. to do specialized work in the sciences, arts, athletics, education, or business.

It’s not the sort of work visa you might choose to apply for if you had another choice readily open to you. The O-1 application process does, after all, involve proving that you’ve got extraordinary ability in your field and have received sustained national or international acclaim for it. You know, just pull out your Olympic medal or Man-Booker Prize (or at least your nomination for one of them).

Indeed, providing proof of such amazing-ness is not easy. Applicants will have to collect a big stack of documents–testimonials, employments contracts, critical reviews, endorsements, and so on. According to San Francisco attorney Kirsten Schlenger, who was quoted in the article, the immigration-lawyer tradition of charging flat fees often makes working on an O-1 “very unprofitable,” because “You always end up putting in so much more effort and time into them.”

So why has the number of O-1 filings more than doubled between 2004 and 2014, going from 6,981 to 15,164 (according to the U.S. Department of State)?

Simple: The visa that would have been most appropriate for many of these applicants is the H-1B, for temporary specialty workers. Only 85,000 H-1Bs can legally be given out per year. Last year, 230,000 people applied for them. That means many people were turned away not because they were ineligible, but simply because they weren’t lucky enough to be chosen out of the pile.

So, many workers’ O-1 applications may involve the equivalent of putting a square peg into a round (dare we say O-shaped?) hole. But at least the U.S.’s clunky and often irrational immigration system still provides this opening.

O’Malley Wants Fact-Checking? How About Language Checking?

borderIn the Saturday, November 15 CBS Democratic debate, presidential candidate Martin O’Malley responded to a question about U.S. border security as follows:

The truth of the matter is, net immigration from Mexico last year was zero. Fact check me. Go ahead. Check it out.

Several news outlets and fact-checking organizations took him up on the challenge.

But they mostly failed to pick up on a critical distinction, which actually determines whether he’s right or wrong (a distinction that probably worries every Mexican-American who listened to the debates):

Was O’Malley talking only about the immigration of undocumented persons (commonly referred to as “illegal immigration”), or about all immigration of Mexicans to the United States?

After all, according to U.S. government statistics, well over 100,000 people born in Mexico typically obtain lawful permanent residence (a green card) each year. They may do so through employers, marriage, and other entirely legal categories under U.S. immigration law.

O’Malley used only the word “immigration,” with no reference to this distinction. If ALL Mexican immigrants are what he meant to describe, he’s actually wrong.

According to data gathered by PolitiFact, the overall number of Mexican-born people living in the U.S. (a figure that would capture both documented and undocumented immigrants) was actually up by a couple hundred in 2014. Not a huge deal, but not “zero,” either.

It’s only when you look at the numbers of UNDOCUMENTED immigrants that O’Malley’s net-zero statement checks out, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

So, which is it, O’Malley? Was your language wrong, or were your facts wrong? It’s one or the other. Either way, someone running for the highest office in the U.S. needs to develop an acute awareness of difference between a legal immigrant and an undocumented one.

Spent Your $20.34 on Halloween Home Decor Yet?

pumpkinThat’s how much the National Retail Federation (NRF) says each of the two-in-five Americans planning to decorate their home this year will spend, on average. (The figure is based on a Consumer Spending Survey it commissioned from Prosper Insights & Analytics.)

When you add up all this spending, you get a total of $1.9 billion. That’s a lot of styrofoam tombstones and hay bales!

With all this home decorating, will extreme displays become the next big grounds for neighbor disputes and lawsuits? Winter holiday lights displays always seem to engender their fair share.

Legally speaking, a display that’s so extreme that it affects others’ enjoyment of their home–perhaps due to light, increased traffic as people drive by for a look, or incessant sounds of creaking doors and “Mwah hah hah hah” laughter–can, in theory, provide grounds for a nuisance claim in court, just as with holiday lights displays.

Courts are, however, reluctant to interfere with people’s property rights, and worried about placing unconstitutional restrictions on free speech. So a display would have to be pretty egregious before a court would order a change (leaving aside the fact that Halloween will likely be over before you can get into court).

One wonders what the court would have said about the Parma, Ohio family who made the news this year (even being written up in the U.K. Daily Mail!) with a Halloween display that caused children to become scared and start crying as they walked past on their way to school.

The display reportedly includes multiple and highly realistic human bodies: a crucified man upside down, a child with a knife in its throat, and a body, wrapped in plastic, hanging headfirst from a tree. (Ick. I don’t recommend looking at the photos.)

City officials refused to step in, on grounds of freedom of expression. But after public complaint and concern, the family seems to have taken down the display on its own.

Do You Really Want to Know Whether Someone Died in the Home You’re Buying?

deathbedGuess what? You can now find out whether a death took place on a particular property, thanks to a website called DiedinHouse.com. (With thanks also to Amy Swinderman of Inman News for pointing this website out.)

The service is not free, however. Obtaining this little tidbit of knowledge will cost you $11.99 for a single search, with discounts for multiple searches (most likely to be used by real estate agents).

This raises the question: How badly do you want the information?

First off, in some states, a prospective home buyer has other ways of obtaining information about deaths on a property. Home sellers in California, for example, must by law disclose in writing any deaths that occurred on the property within the last three years.

And even in states without such a legal requirement, you can, as a prospective buyer always ask the seller whether anyone has died in the house. Sellers might not be legally required to answer this particular question, but they can’t lie, either. (Outright lies are considered fraud in every state, providing grounds for a lawsuit.) Then again, sellers might not know about deaths that took place before they bought the house.

How about a Google (or similar) search using the property address or the owners’ names? This won’t bring up every death, but it will bring up the ones you’re probably most worried about–violent or especially tragic deaths. It might even bring up reports of hauntings!

These may be significant when assessing the home as an investment. A property where a notorious death has taken place might be “stigmatized,” and therefore hard to sell when you’re ready for your next move.

Before going too far down the rabbit hole of online and other searches, however, consider that before World War I, most deaths took place at home. If you’re buying a historical house in America, you should simply expect that someone has died there at some point–and perhaps think of it as the natural completion of a life cycle rather than as a manifestation of the macabre.