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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

Car insurance claims can be straightforward or involve many moving pieces to get the facts straight and payment resolved. Understanding the process can help you know when to follow up on settling your claim. You’ll want to follow several steps to make sure your claim gets paid and your car is repaired as quickly as possible.

Insurance claims guides by insurer

How do I file 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 materials 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.

How long do I have to file?

The time period for filing a claim can range from one to 10 years, varying based on the type of claim and your state’s laws.

However, most insurers want you to report the accident immediately and begin the claims process at the time of the accident. You can start your claim but settle it later as more details are uncovered.

What info do I need to make a claim?

Your insurance company’s website or an agent should tell you which documents you’ll need when reporting an accident, which may include:

  • Your policy number to help your insurer locate your account.
  • The other driver’s contact details like their name, phone number and insurance policy number.
  • The police report, detailing the incident and any observations the police made about who was at fault or the damage.
  • Your summary of the accident. Accounts that are recorded immediately after the incident are called contemporaneous evidence, and these hold a lot of weight in court.
  • Witnesses’ information, including their name, phone number and description of the accident.
  • Photos of the damage, showing the cars’ final resting positions, skid marks and damage to the cars or surroundings. You can add location tags by turning on GPS for pictures in your phone’s location settings before snapping the photo.
  • Footage of the event. If you have a dashcam, any footage of the accident can help your insurer prove who was at fault.

What documents should I keep in my car?

To be prepared for the worst, you can carry forms in your car that help you exchange details with another driver quickly.

You can find printable forms online that request the info above as well as the other person’s address, driver’s license number and their description of the incident.

How does the claims process work?

Your claim is assigned to an insurance adjuster, the person who handles your claim, collects details and sets up any claims payments. The process your adjuster follows may look like this:

  1. Read the policy details to understand what’s covered. Your adjuster makes sure you’re getting all the benefits you deserve based on your coverage like a rental car, towing or glass replacement.
  2. Listen to your account of the accident. Your adjuster will try to get payment from the other driver’s insurance if they caused your injuries or car’s damage.
  3. Ask for contact details of the people involved. Insurers may investigate the details of what happened and establish who was at fault in the accident.
  4. Get repair estimates for the damage. This may include an in-person viewing of the damage.
  5. Offer you an insurance settlement. The payout subtracts 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 disputes to make sure you agree to the final claim amount.

    How your insurance company settles repair costs

    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.

    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 doubts about the final decision, you have the right to get an independent evaluation from a public adjuster.

    A statutory write-off means that your car will never be safe to drive again, despite any repair work. A repairable write-off means that the repair costs went beyond your coverage or your insurance company’s willingness to pay. In this case, your insurer will keep the vehicle and pay you its agreed or market value.

    How do I pay for repairs after filing a claim?

    You’ll want to work with your insurance company on immediate repairs to make sure your final payout matches the repair costs. If you pay out of pocket before receiving your check, you’ll want to:

    • Get your inspection before fixing the damage. Your adjuster may investigate the damage before authorizing repairs and estimating the cost.
    • Notify your insurance company if you need immediate repairs. If you think delaying repairs will lead to more damage, get instructions from your insurance company on paying for the immediate repairs.
    • Take before pictures and keep documentation. Along with photos you took at the accident scene, keep closeups of the damage you’re paying for out of pocket.
    • Know when you’ll get your claims check. Ask for the timeline on when you’ll receive your claims check, so you can keep tabs on getting reimbursed.

    How will I 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 their network. You’ll pay the deductible first, which is the amount you pay before your insurance pays for repairs.

    If you’re not at fault, your insurance company works with the other driver’s insurance to reimburse you for expenses. You could contact this insurance company to keep tabs on your check if payment is taking a long time.

    In some states, insurance companies are required to pay your claim within 30 days after it’s settled. Other states require payments to 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.

          How to make sure your claim gets paid

          Help your claims process go more smoothly with a few tips:

          • 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 claim being 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.

            Why was my car insurance claim denied?

            Reading your contract in detail is an effective first step to making sure you know your policy’s exclusions and your responsibilities.

            • Business driving. Unless you’ve purchased commercial insurance or rideshare insurance, you can assume that your policy only covers personal use of your car.
            • 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.
            • 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.
            • Optional coverage. Your policy doesn’t cover everything, so don’t assume you have coverage for theft, storm damage, car modifications or at-fault collisions if you didn’t buy that coverage.
            • 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.
            • Unapproved drivers. Some policies protect your list of nominated drivers — but not everybody who gets behind the wheel.
            • Wear and tear depreciation. Insurance covers accidental damage to your vehicle, not damage caused by everyday use or depreciation.

            How to appeal a denied car insurance 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

            When should I make a car insurance 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 you or someone else gets injured. Your liability coverage takes care of other people’s 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. Also, your insurer can help you receive a payment if you’re injured by another driver — or pay out from your personal injury protection coverage.
            • 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. 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.
            • You experienced a hit-and-run or uninsured driver. Your policy may cover these situations under your uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage if you bought this coverage.

            When can I forgo making 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.

              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:

              • 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 to expect after your claim

              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

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              Bottom line

              Being prepared for the claims process helps make filing a car insurance claim 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 company about your coverage and the best way to make a car insurance claim. Learn more about car insurance coverage and compare car insurers that can offer you more comprehensive coverage, an easier claims process and better customer service.

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