What does ‘Act of God’ mean in insurance?

9 minute read

Flooded road with flood warning sign

Having a robust insurance policy in place will help protect your property, cars or personal belongings. Knowing exactly what your cover includes is the best way to maximise this protection and ensure it fits your personal circumstances.

In this article, we’re going to explore what is meant by the term ‘act of God’ when discussing insurance. Understanding the theory behind this term, and how to compare policies in this area, is key to getting your cover right. As the saying goes, ‘the devil is in the details’. And, when it comes to insurance, being well-informed on such matters really can pay off.

 

What is an act of God?

The Collins English Dictionary defines ‘an act of God’ as:

‘An event that is beyond human control, especially one in which something is damaged or someone is hurt.‘

When discussing home insurance, the term ‘act of God’ is often used as a catch-all phrase for natural disasters or events that cause damage to a property. It is not an official term used by modern providers, as we’ll explore below. However, understanding the rationale behind this category can be very helpful when researching your insurance options.

From hurricanes to hailstorms, there are lots of different sources that can result in this type of insurance claim. But it’s important to note that not every incident linked to a natural disaster will be deemed an ‘act of God’.

The most common criteria for an ‘act of God’ dictate it should be:

  • Unpredictable
  • Unpreventable
  • Unavoidable
  • An act of nature
  • Not linked to any human actions, lack of maintenance or negligence

Here are some examples that show how these criteria may apply:

  1. If your house caught fire following a lightning strike this could be deemed an ‘act of God’ as you couldn’t possibly foresee or predict it. If you live in an area that’s prone to flooding on a regular basis, however, future floods may not be seen as ‘unpredictable’. And even though you won't know if/when another flood may take place, the risk is higher for this location. In this instance, you may want to seek additional flood insurance or discuss how to strengthen your cover with your provider.
  2. If a storm damaged your home after delivering unprecedented and unexpected conditions, it could qualify as an ‘act of God’. But if a storm with average wind speeds damaged a roof that had been left with rotten fixings and loose tiles, the damage would not be classed as ‘unavoidable’. Maintaining and protecting your property is the responsibility of the homeowner in your insurance agreement.

 

Does insurance cover acts of God?

Whilst the term ’act of God’ has often been associated with insurance in the past, you’re unlikely to see it being used in modern documentation. This is because it’s vague and varies greatly between providers and policies. Nowadays, you’re more likely to see the specific references to the sources of an ‘act of God’ that your insurer will or will not cover. This could include:

  • Floods
  • Hurricanes
  • Falling trees
  • Tornados
  • Earthquakes
  • Volcanic eruption
  • Storms
  • Lightning
  • Hail showers

Every insurer will differ in terms of the natural events they will cover in a policy. This could also depend on your location or property too. If you’re unsure about what you are covered for, check your home insurance policy document or talk to your provider.

 

Here we explore some of the frequently asked questions around this topic:

 

Does house insurance cover ‘acts of God’?

Home insurance can be split into various types of policy, the main ones being contents insurance and buildings insurance. Your contents insurance protects your belongings and the items inside your home, whereas buildings insurance covers the property and the structure itself. Therefore, when it comes to damage caused by storms, such as fallen trees, it’s important that you have both types of insurance if you own the property.

Each insurance provider will vary in the cover they offer too, and there may be additional information to look out for within your policy.

Heavy or persistent rain or snow alone doesn’t constitute a storm unless it’s so bad that damage is caused to well-maintained properties. You should check your policy documents to see exactly what your provider says about storms and other natural incidents. It’s also worth keeping records of any maintenance work you have done on your home.

 

What is ‘accidental damage’ cover?

An ‘accidental damage’ policy add-on will provide cover for more unforeseen incidents than are included in standard home insurance.

Accidental damage can be defined as damage caused suddenly by external means which is not expected and not deliberate. If you want to extend your cover to include more unexpected incidents, you can discuss this with your provider.

 

What is a ‘force majeure’?

When talking about an ‘act of God’ with regards to insurance, it’s important not to get it confused with the term ‘force majeure’, which is more often used in commercial contracts. A force majeure is an unforeseen circumstance that prevents a person from doing something. For example, when a pandemic causes multiple employees to take time off with illness, a business may not be able to ship out products to its customers. In this instance, the company wouldn’t be held liable as the pandemic was out of their control.

 

Is a hurricane or tornado an ‘act of God’?

Hurricanes, storms and tornadoes are usually considered an ‘act of God’ if they produce extreme conditions. This could be the conditions outlined in your policy or those that are above average levels.

Hurricanes are statistically more destructive than tornadoes but we’re far less likely to experience them here in the UK. Hurricanes can’t form here because of the low latitude, but we can sometimes experience the tail-end of one that has come from overseas. Tornados, however, are not as rare in the UK. In fact, according to netweather.tv, the UK saw 3 tornadoes in 2022. This is all information that your insurance provider will assess when calculating the risks involved and how ‘unexpected’ an event in your location would be.

 

Is flooding an ‘act of God’?

Flooding is generally considered an ‘act of God’ when caused by adverse, unexpected weather conditions. But if you live in a high flood-risk area, flooding could be classed as a more ‘predictable’ occurrence linked to the local geography. In this case, you may require specialist flood insurance to get the cover you need. Your premiums may also be higher. Some home insurance policies will cover you against any damage caused by floodwater, whereas others won’t. So, do check the policy details when researching your options.

 

Is a tree falling an ‘act of God’?

A fallen tree may be considered an ‘act of God’, depending on why the tree fell. For instance, extreme winds or lightning that cause a tree to blow over or fall would be considered an ‘act of God’. However, if the tree fell because a person has cut some of its roots, or compromised its structure, it would not.

 

Is a pandemic an ‘act of God’?

There has been much discussion around whether a pandemic constitutes an ‘act of God’, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. An illness isn’t something that people can control or predict, and therefore it could come under the term ‘act of God’. However, the way in which it impacted a person or business could make it a ‘force majeure’, a term that we’ve discussed above. Therefore, each individual circumstance would need to be assessed.

To determine exactly which ‘acts of God’ you’re personally covered against, you should read your policy document or contact your provider.

The most common natural events that are covered in the UK are storms and floods. To minimise the damage caused by these types of weather, you could move any outdoor furniture to a sheltered spot, park your car in a garage and clear your gutters to avoid leaks that can cause damp. 

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