After the storms, the fires, and the floods, some creditors are taking steps to make paying off your debts a little easier.

If you have a mortgage, a student loan, or in some cases even credit card bills, you may be able to take more time to make your payments, without being charged fees.

To qualify, though, you'll need to live or work in an area that was affected by a natural disaster. Check to see whether your county has been registered as a federal disaster area with the Federal Emergency Management Administration. You also may qualify for help from government sources.

If you're in a disaster area, here are the benefits you should look into:

Mortgages

Even if your home is completely destroyed, you're responsible for paying the mortgage balance. If you rebuild, your homeowners insurance settlement check will name you and your mortgage lender as payees; the lender holds those funds in escrow and disburses them as rebuilding proceeds. If you don't rebuild, the lender retains a portion of the settlement covering your mortgage principal and pays you the rest.

If, like most people, your mortgage is underwritten by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or insured by the Federal Housing Administration or Department of Veterans Affairs, your lender must offer you some form of assistance in paying your mortgage following the disaster.

That help can include more time to pay your mortgage or permission to skip some payments temporarily and make them up later. You might not have to make principal or interest payments on your mortgage during a forbearance period—between three and 12 months, depending on the arrangement. 

While the company servicing your mortgage must continue to pay your mortgage insurance, homeowners insurance, and property taxes—if that was your original arrangement—you might not have to pay fees on late payments. (If you regularly pay one or more of those expenses yourself, you'll need to keep paying them as well, or arrange for some form of forbearance.)

Those arrangements can be helpful, but keep in mind that interest on your mortgage will continue to build up. When the forbearance period is over, you'll need to pay that accrued interest and make up the payments you missed.

To reduce the burden, there are several steps you can take. One is to speak to your lender about resuming your previous payment level and adding on a sum each month to cover the accrued interest and missed payments.

You also can pay back the entire foregone amount—including interest—in a lump sum, then continue your original payments.

A third option is to get a loan modification, making your monthly mortgage payments more affordable.

By making modifications, your mortgage payments will probably continue for a longer period of time, says Alys Cohen, a Washington, D.C.-based staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center, a consumer advocacy group. "But at least you’ll be able to stay in your home," she notes.

Student Loans

If you have a federal student loan, you may qualify for up to three months of forbearance, says Gail Hillebrand, associate director of consumer education and engagement at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (and formerly with Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports). 

Navient, the nation's largest student-loan processor, says it will extend those benefits to private education loans as well.

Interest that accrues on your loans during that period is not “capitalized," meaning it's not added to the principal of your loan, Navient says. That’s a benefit because when interest is added to the principal, you end up paying more interest on the higher balance. By keeping the interest accrued during the forbearance period separate, you essentially avoid paying interest on your interest.

Another option to lower your student payments is to see whether you’re eligible for plans that allow you to pay less based on your income level. 

Other Loans

If you have other kinds of payments—say, monthly credit card and auto loan bills—financial institutions are not required to give you any help. But the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently issued guidance encouraging lenders to work with consumers affected by the various disasters. 

American Express, for instance, will refund or waive interest, late fees, and return check fees for those affected by the California wildfires, and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, says Charlotte Fuller, an American Express spokeswoman. Depending on your needs, American Express could set up alternative payment arrangements, including extending the time you have to pay bills or increasing spending limits.

More from Consumer Reports on Dealing with Disasters

Citibank will waive late fees and payment deferrals for its credit card customers in FEMA-designated disaster areas. It is also offering emergency credit line increases. 

Capital One says it is encouraging customers affected by the recent disasters to contact the bank for help with fee waivers, payment plans, and forbearance programs, says Amanda Landers, a spokeswoman for the company.

Toyota Financial Services announced it would offer "payment relief options" to those affected by the hurricanes and wildfires if they financed Toyota and Lexus autos. It is giving loan and lease customers several options to stretch out their payments. 

Many other financial institutions will also work with you. To get specifics, go directly to your creditors, says Bruce McClary, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), a nonprofit financial counseling organization.

Steps to Take

To make sure you can get the benefits you are due, it’s a good idea to follow these suggestions:

• Keep detailed records. Document conversations with your creditors, McClary recommends. By keeping careful notes, you’ll have backup if there’s a dispute later.

• Add a statement to your credit report. You're entitled to add a 100-word statement to your credit reports mentioning that your home or business was located in a federally declared disaster area (Maine allows for a 200-word statement). Do this with all three credit-reporting companies: EquifaxExperian, and TransUnion.

With Experian, for example, go to the company's complaint portal and enter the report number of your current credit report, or request a new report (in this instance, it's free, a spokesperson told us). Once you receive your report—it typically is generated online instantly—follow the instructions to add a statement. That statement will stay on your record for two years or until you ask for it to be removed.

Adding a statement won’t impact your credit score or how each creditor may work with you, but it can help inform lenders if they need to understand why an account may have fallen behind, McClary says.

• Complain if you face resistance. If a lender is not willing to give you a break, you can turn to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The agency employs ombudsmen to deal with individuals' complaints related to lenders, loan servicers, credit bureaus, debt-collection agencies, and other consumer debt and lending companies. You also can register your gripe with the CFPB's Consumer Complaint Database.

Another option is to contact your state regulator or the Better Business Bureau. Staffers will follow up with the company to try to resolve the issue.

• Educate yourself. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. published a detailed Frequently Asked Questions [PDF] related to problems consumers might have with bank services, including using ATMs, making wire transfers, and receiving Social Security checks. Its advice could be useful to anyone after a natural disaster. The CFPB also has a handy financial toolkit for natural disaster victims.