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Car insurance claims: Everything you need to know

How to make a successful car insurance claim and get repairs covered fast

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Being involved in a car accident or having your car stolen is stressful, but knowing how the claims process works can make it easier to deal with. You’ll want to follow the right steps to make sure your claim is paid out and your car is repaired as quickly as possible.

Insurance claims guides by provider

How to make a car insurance claim

Most insurers offer several ways to file a claim and make the process convenient for you. Those include:

  • Online. You can submit claims forms online through most major insurer’s websites. Some designate a claims email address for you to get in touch.
  • By phone. You can call your insurer to make a claim or inform a representative of an accident. While you can provide some information verbally like the other driver’s contact information, you’ll need to send material like photos or police reports another way.
  • Using an app. Some companies offer an app to help you navigate the process on the go. Most apps also let you upload photos or videos to show the damage.
  • In the mail or in person. If you want more traditional ways to contact, try looking for insurers that make this process easy while providing a solid customer experience. Not all companies offer local agents.

What do I need to make a claim?

Your insurance company’s website or customer service should give you an idea of any documents you’ll need when reporting an accident. Documents to get hold of before filing:

  • The other driver’s contact details. Your insurer will need the other driver’s name, phone number and insurance policy number at a minimum, and you might also want their car’s license plate number.
  • Notes about the accident. Write a summary of what took place as soon as possible after the accident. Accounts that are recorded immediately are called contemporaneous evidence, and these hold a lot of weight in court.
  • Witnesses contact information. Ask witnesses to jot down their description of the accident and, if possible, include their name and phone number if your insurer needs further confirmation.
  • Photos of the damage. Pay attention to your and the other driver’s car damage. But also keep an eye out for the final resting position of all the cars, skid marks or damage to surroundings like traffic lights. You might be able to add location tags to photos on your phone. This works by turning on the GPS satellite for pictures in your phone’s location settings. Then, snap the photo after turning on this setting.
  • Any footage of the event. If you have a dashcam recording of the accident, the footage can help your insurer prove fault and damage.

Carry driver info forms

To be prepared for the worst, carry forms for requesting driver info in your car. You need to exchange a lot of details following an accident, and having these handy makes the process easier. Try printing out forms for other drivers or witnesses, requesting this info:

  • Name
  • Time, date and location of the incident
  • Contact number
  • Address
  • Insurance policy number
  • Vehicle registration
  • License number
  • A brief description of what happened

How long you have to file

The time period for filing a claim is set by your state’s laws. It can range from one to 10 years and varies based on the type of claim. However, most insurers want you to report the accident immediately and begin the claims process at the time of the accident. You can report the accident to your insurer without filing the claim right away, or start the claim but settle later as more details are uncovered.

How insurers process claims

Insurers are particularly interested in the details of the incident and information about the other driver, passengers and insurers. Your insurer may attempt to recover costs from the insurer of the person who caused the accident. The steps insurer take when processing claims can include:

  • Recovery on your behalf. If you’ve been injured and the other driver was at fault, your insurer can get in touch with the other driver’s insurance company on your behalf. Your insurer also makes sure you’re getting all the benefits you deserve, such as free car repairs, towing or glass replacement.
  • Contacting drivers and witnesses. Insurers may investigate the details of what happened and establish who was at fault in the accident.
  • Providing services. If you qualify for emergency accommodations, roadside assistance or a rental car under your policy, your company will outline steps for using that coverage and getting reimbursed.

How the insurance adjustment works

Your claim is assigned to an insurance adjuster, the person who will handle your claim, collect details and set up any claims payments. The process may look like this:

  1. Read the policy details to understand what’s covered.
  2. Listen to your account of the accident.
  3. Ask for contact details from the people involved in the accident.
  4. Get repair estimates for the damage. This may include an in-person viewing of the damage.
  5. Advise you of the total amount you’ll be paid by insurance and the timelines. The insurance payout will subtract your deductible, which is the amount you pay out of pocket before your policy kicks in.
  6. Send your settlement check or arrange for your repair shop to get paid.
  7. Act as the intermediary for any disputes to make sure you’re in agreement to the final claim amount.

Insurers vs. repair shops

The insurance company and repair shop may disagree about the cost of car repairs and the process for those repairs, especially if you choose a mechanic that’s not on the preferred repair shop list. For example, the insurer might not agree to the hourly labor charge or the estimated repair timeline.

Repair shops and insurers should resolve any issues, but you might stay informed and speak up if you don’t agree with the repairs.

How to get paid for a claim

Some insurers pay the repair shop instead of reimbursing you, especially if it’s a preferred or recommended shop through your company’s own network. You won’t have to pay out of pocket for repairs, but you still pay your deductible first. The deductible is the amount you agreed to pay out of pocket before your insurance pays out for repairs.

If you’re not at fault, your insurance company works with the other driver’s insurance to reimburse you for any expenses. You may want to contact this insurance company to keep tabs on your check if it’s taking a long time to receive your money.

In some states, insurance companies are required to pay out your claim within 30 days after it’s settled. But other states simply require payments be made within a reasonable time, with no hard time limit.

Reasons your claim may be delayed

How quickly you can gather and submit your claims information is up to you and your insurer. Reasons your claim could be delayed:

  • Poor communication. If you don’t answer the phone when your insurance company calls, your claim will take longer to get settled. But if you haven’t heard from your insurance company in a while, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone yourself.
  • You’re unhappy with the repair job. Get your car back and think something’s still off? If you’re not satisfied with repairs, signing off on the final paperwork may get delayed. Work with your garage and insurance company to make sure all the damage is fixed.
  • Natural disaster. If your car was damaged in a major storm, many other people could be vying for the insurance company’s time.

Can I pay for repairs while waiting for a claims payout?

You can pay for repairs out of pocket if you’ve filed your car insurance claim and haven’t received your claims check yet. But you might want to work with your insurance company on immediate repairs. This way, you avoid chasing your claims check to get repaid and assure that your payout matches the repair costs.

What to watch out for when paying upfront

If you decide to pay out of pocket before receiving your check, you’ll want to go about it the right way:

  • Get your inspection before fixing the damage. Your insurance adjuster will investigate the damage before authorizing any repairs and making a cost estimation. You’ll want the estimate from your adjuster to match the amount you spend on repairs.
  • Notify your insurance company if you need immediate repairs. If you think delaying repairs will lead to your car seeing further damage, notify your insurance company before making repairs. Get confirmation that your car needs immediate attention first. Your insurer may provide instructions to get the damage repaired.
  • Take before pictures and keep documentation. You may have taken pictures to file your car insurance claim. But keep pictures associated with the damage you plan to pay out of pocket while you’re waiting for your claims check.
  • Know how you’ll be paid your claims check. Since insurance companies’ policies and laws vary, understand where your claims check will get sent. This lets you know the timeline for reimbursing yourself for repairs.

When not to file a claim

In many cases, you’ll want to notify your insurance company about any damage, especially if you caused that damage to someone else’s car or property. But you could find yourself in one of these situations, giving you the option to pay for repairs yourself:

Your vehicle is the only thing damaged

If you cause an accident and only your car gets damaged, it may make sense to pay for everything yourself and forgo telling your insurance company.

Let’s say you cause $1,800 of damage and your deductible is $1,000, your insurer’s $800 check might seem helpful. But since you were at fault, your insurer can raise your rates over the next few years.

An unknown person causes minor damage to your car

Even if the damage isn’t your fault, it’s not always a good idea to claim through insurance. In most cases, your insurer won’t hold it against you. But if you make several small claims, your insurer may conclude that you drive in high-risk areas.

Or if you have a bigger claim down the road where you’re at fault, a few smaller claims can paint a negative claims history. Both of these situations could increase your premiums.

You don’t have collision or comprehensive coverage

If your car received damage from a storm or because you veered off the road, only collision or comprehensive coverage would pay for the repairs. So you shouldn’t need to file a claim if you don’t have these types of coverage on your policy.

When to consider making a claim

Certain situations warrant making a claim and notifying your insurance no matter what, including any time there’s a collision with another vehicle.

When other people get injured

When you injure others in an accident, your liability coverage takes care of the medical payments. You don’t want to pay out of pocket because those medical bills can climb as more injuries are uncovered or prolonged treatments needed. Plus, you could miss the timeline for filing a claim with your insurer, leaving you stuck with the ballooning medical bills.

It’s unclear who’s at fault

Don’t agree to pay if there’s a chance the other person is at fault or partially to blame. Your insurer will represent you and negotiate with the other insurance company to minimize your responsibility.

You damaged someone else’s car or property

Thump. That was the sound of your car door ever-so-slightly bumping the car next to you in the parking lot. Even if the damage is minor, you should get your insurance company involved. That way the other person doesn’t try to collect more money later or file a claim against you after the fact.

The only exception might be if you know and trust the person, such as backing into your family member’s or close friend’s car. Even then, consider the risks.

How to make sure your claim won’t get rejected

If you don’t follow the terms and conditions of your insurance policy, your insurer may reject your claim. Watch out for:

  • Benefits. Your policy doesn’t cover everything, so don’t assume you have coverage for theft, storm damage or at-fault collisions if you didn’t buy that coverage.
  • Exclusions. These conditions may mean that you won’t receive payment for specific situations your policy won’t cover. For example, exclusions may apply for intentional acts of damage you caused or specific types of storms.
  • Your obligations. Getting approved repairs and waiting to settle damage with other parties are two common obligations you’ll encounter in car insurance policies. Not following these can be used as grounds to deny a claim.

Reading your contract in detail is an effective first step to making sure you know your responsibilities and exclusions. Contact your insurance company about specific questions or to get some assistance on the accident scene.

Common reasons a claim might be rejected

To avoid any rejected claims, read up on the exclusions that apply to your policy, which may include:

  • Unapproved drivers. Some policies protect your list of nominated drivers — but not everybody who gets behind the wheel.
  • Unapproved use. Unless you’ve purchased commercial insurance or rideshare insurance, you can assume that your policy only covers personal use of your car.
  • Overloaded vehicle. If you allow more people in the car than seatbelts, your insurance may not cover you in an accident.
  • Unapproved modifications. If you’re modifying your car with a stereo system or tinted windows, update your insurance policy’s coverage to make sure you have protection.
  • Wear and tear depreciation. Insurance covers accidental damage to your vehicle, not damage caused by everyday use or depreciation.
  • Personal belongings. While some policies cover personal items as an add-on, limits and special conditions apply. Check the fine print to find out which belongings you can claim in an accident.
  • Driving outside the US. Your policy may or may not protect you when you drive into Canada and Mexico. Confirm those details with your agent first.

How to make sure your claim gets paid

Here are a few things to remember to help make your claims process go more smoothly:

  • Be honest. Car insurance companies share information about any past claims or violations on your driving record. Failure to disclose these details could lead to your claims getting rejected.
  • Keep a record. Keep as many records of the incident as you can to prove the damage and expenses caused by the car accident.
  • Don’t admit guilt. Don’t settle a claim on the roadside by yourself by admitting any fault. Provide as much information as you can, and let the insurance companies work out who caused the accident.
  • Contact your insurer. If you’ve been involved in an accident, report it to your insurer as soon as you can once everyone is safe and you’ve contacted the police or ambulance.

What to expect after your claim is completed

After you file a claim, you might notice some changes to your premium payment, such as:

  • Higher monthly payment
  • Loss of no-claims discount
  • Loss of accident forgiveness perk
  • The addition of the accident on your driving record, affecting future insurance quotes

Repair vs. write-off

Your insurer chooses when your vehicle can be written off as a total loss or whether your car will get repaired. If you have any doubts about the insurer’s decision, you have the right to obtain an independent assessment from a public adjuster.

A statutory write-off means that your car will never be safe to drive again, no matter how much repair work goes into it. A repairable write-off means that the cost of repairs exceeds the sum insured. In this case, your insurer will keep the vehicle and pay you its agreed or market value.

How to get affordable car insurance after a claim

To keep your car insurance rates from getting out of hand after an accident, consider these factors:

  • You can adjust your coverage.
    If your new premiums are breaking the bank, you can bump the price down by raising your deductible, reducing your limits or dropping extras like roadside assistance.
  • Maximize discounts.
    Your no-claims discount is gone for now, but you could qualify for other car insurance discounts. Look for low-mileage discounts if you don’t drive much, multi-policy discounts, membership discounts or defensive driving courses that are recognized by your insurance company.

What if you’re not satisfied with your claim

If you feel that you’re not getting enough compensation, you can dispute the claims settlement offer to get what you deserve. Document all communication you’ve made with the insurance company and pay attention to timelines. To dispute your claim, do the following:

  1. Contact the insurer. Talk to your insurer about your concerns to work out a solution. If an agent doesn’t resolve your issue, speak with a supervisor. You can also follow up with a letter, restating your concerns.
  2. Provide supporting documentation. If you have previous repair bills proving your car’s condition, that could help your case.
  3. Hire an independent adjuster. This measure will take an added expense, so only do this if you feel you’re owed significantly more money than the insurance company is paying.
  4. Make a complaint to the state. If you can’t come to an agreement with your insurance company, you can go over its head by contacting your state’s insurance department. Then, respond quickly when the state department asks for more information.
  5. Mediation. Before you taking the insurance company to court, the company may use a mediator — a third party who will try to help you reach a fair solution.
  6. Get a lawyer. If you’re considering going to court, talk to a lawyer about your claim and whether it’s worth escalating the issue. Then, your lawyer will prepare you for a bad faith claim against your insurance company.

Who to contact if you’re not satisfied with your claim

Start by following up with your insurance company before taking on extra costs from a third-party appraiser, mediator or lawyer. Going to small claims court should be your last resort. People you might contact first:

  • Insurer’s customer support
  • Independent appraiser
  • State insurance department
  • Attorney

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Bottom line

Making an insurance claim after an accident can seem scary and overwhelming. Being prepared will help make the process seem less daunting, by understanding your coverage and knowing the best steps to take after an accident. Your insurer will work with you to make sure your claim is paid out so you can get back on the road.

Talk to your insurance provider about your coverage and the best way to make a car insurance claim. Learn more about car insurance coverage and compare insurance providers that can offer you more comprehensive coverage, an easier claims process and better customer service.

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