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How to File a Car Insurance Claim After an Auto Accident


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It all happened so fast. One moment, you’re driving down the street, eyes straight ahead as always. The next, you’re slamming on the brakes to avoid hitting a car speedily reversing down a blind driveway.

You barely manage to stop short of the car as the driver throws it into drive and peels away. But the car behind you — the driver blissfully unaware, possibly looking at their phone — rear-ends you anyway, throwing your vehicle up on the curb.

Your seat belt does what it’s supposed to do, and fortunately, the other driver is OK too. But both cars are in rough shape. Your car insurance company is definitely going to hear about this.


How to File a Car Insurance Claim

First things first: If you or a passenger in your car is injured or has reason to suspect an injury, seek medical attention as soon as possible. Your car insurance claim can wait.


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Once that’s done and the initial shock has worn off, it’s time to get to work. Follow these steps to file a car insurance claim after an accident or other incident involving your vehicle. 


1. File a Police Report (if Applicable)

If the incident involves another driver or suspected criminal activity, file a police report at the scene. 

Even if you don’t think it’ll help — for example, someone vandalized your car overnight and the perpetrator left no obvious clues — a police report establishes a record of the incident that can support your claim. It could make the difference between a denied and approved claim.

If it’s safe to do so and you don’t need medical attention, wait at the scene of the accident until the police arrive. The responding officer will likely interview you and any other drivers, passengers, and witnesses separately. They may take photos of the scene and damaged vehicles as well.

If you’re not able to wait at the scene, visit the nearest police station when you’re able to file the report in person. If the responding agency can’t spare an officer — which is common for minor accidents in busy jurisdictions — the dispatcher might ask you to come into the station anyway.


2. Exchange Insurance Information With the Other Driver

While waiting for the police to arrive, exchange insurance information with any other drivers involved in the incident. 

If you have your insurance cards, take photos of the other driver’s card with your smartphone. Otherwise, use a pen and paper or your phone to record key policy details:

  • The driver’s name and the policyholder’s name
  • The insurance company
  • The policy number

Take down the make, model, and license plate number of their vehicle. Record the names of any passengers in other cars if they’re willing to provide them. Do the same for any witnesses that have stuck around. Your insurance company might want to talk to these people when evaluating your claim.

Try to keep an even keel when talking to other drivers or passengers. Don’t admit you were at fault for the accident, even if you probably were. Don’t accuse them of causing the accident, either, even if they clearly did. Leave that determination to the police and your insurance claims adjuster.


3. Document the Damage

Take copious photos and videos of the damage, even if you couldn’t do so at the scene. Your insurance company might ask you to if you don’t.

Throughout this process, keep records of any expenses related to the incident. That might include receipts for towing on the day of the incident, repair estimates from your dealership or body shop, and medical bills that come due in the weeks and months that follow.


4. Determine Who’s at Fault (if Applicable) & Where to File Your Claim

If you’re involved in an accident with another driver, you may need to determine who’s at fault for the accident. 

It’s sometimes straightforward. If you get hit by another driver while obeying all traffic laws and have the right of way, it’s very likely the driver who hit you is at fault. 

In other cases, it’s not as clear-cut, and sometimes drivers share fault partially or equally. Either way, insurance companies are ultimately responsible for determining who’s at fault, usually with the help of the police report, driver and witness statements, and their insurance adjusters’ analyses of the damaged vehicles.

If you live in a state with a no-fault auto insurance law, who’s at fault matters less because you’re obligated to file your initial claim with your own insurance company. Check with your state’s insurance commissioner if you’re unsure whether your state has a no-fault law.

If your state doesn’t have a no-fault law and you believe another driver is at fault, you should first file a liability claim with their insurance company. However, their insurer will almost certainly investigate the accident. 

If its adjuster has a different interpretation of events or the other driver doesn’t have adequate liability coverage, go to Plan B — filing a collision or uninsured motorist claim with your own insurer if you have either type of coverage.


5. Contact the Insurance Company

Next, call your insurance agent or the insurance company’s claims hotline (the phone number’s on your insurance card). Alternatively, you can use the insurance company’s app or website to begin the claims-filing process online. 

This part of the process is the same regardless of whose insurance you file under. You’ll either file with your insurer or the at-fault driver’s.

Tell them everything that happened in as much detail as possible. Lead them through the sequence of events and provide the other driver’s insurance and contact information. Let them know if you’ve filed a police report or plan to and whether you have any photo or video documentation. If you’re filing your claim online, you should be able to upload photos, videos, and notes there.

During this conversation, don’t forget to ask the crucial question: whether the policy covers the claim. For example, if you drive an older car that’s fully paid off, you might not have collision or comprehensive coverage. Depending on the laws in your state, that could mean your insurance company won’t cover repair costs unless it finds another driver is at fault.


6. Submit the Claim

Once you’ve gathered and uploaded everything, you’re ready to submit your claim. If you need to fill out a claim form, look for it in the insurance company’s app or on the website. You can usually fill it out electronically, but you might need to print and scan it.

Don’t worry if you’re not positive your claim is complete. You should be able to submit additional documentation, such as late-coming repair and medical bills, as long as the insurance company hasn’t officially ruled on the claim.


7. Investigation & Insurance Adjuster Review

At this point, the insurance company’s insurance claims adjuster will review your claim and reach out to you to discuss it. If your vehicle sustained significant damage, there’s a good chance they’ll want to look at it in person and determine whether to call it a total loss.

If your vehicle is totaled, it’s worth less than it would cost to repair. Assuming your claim is covered under your policy and the insurance adjuster has no reason to suspect fraud, they’ll offer to pay you the market value for your car.

If your vehicle is salvageable, the insurance claims adjuster will estimate how much it’ll cost to repair. They’ll provide you with a list of carrier-approved repair shops and encourage you to take the vehicle to one if it’s not there already. If your preferred repair shop isn’t on the list, ask if it’s OK to use them. Insurance companies often work out reduced pricing with carrier-approved shops in exchange for a predictable flow of work. 


8. Review the Settlement Offer

Part of the insurance adjuster’s job is to verify the extent of the damage and confirm the facts of your story as best they can. Assuming everything is on the up and up, they’ll write a report recommending the insurance company approve your claim. You’ll then receive a settlement offer detailing what the insurer is willing to pay to reimburse your loss.

If the offer is acceptable to you, tell the insurer that you approve and wait for the payout to come — typically within a week or two after you accept. 

If you believe the insurance company isn’t paying you fair market value for your vehicle or is excluding some expenses, ask for reconsideration. Be prepared to support your argument with additional documentation, like bills not submitted with your initial claim.


9. Receive the Payout

How you receive your payout partially depends on whether your car can be repaired.

If so and you’re using a carrier-approved repair shop, your insurer might pay the repair shop directly. That ensures they don’t overpay on the claim. For example, if they estimate the repair costs at $1,000 and cut you a check for that amount, but the repair shop only bills you $800, you’ll come out $200 ahead.

If your car is totaled, you’ll receive a check or electronic transfer for the settlement amount. Use this money to buy a new or used car. Or you can make a down payment on a replacement car if the settlement isn’t enough to cover the full cost.


Car Insurance Claim FAQs

There’s a lot to know about filing an auto insurance claim.  Fortunately, you can find all the answers in these frequently asked questions.

How Long Does the Auto Insurance Claims Process Take?

It depends on how complicated the claim is and the circumstances surrounding it. 

Simple claims might take only a few days if the insurance company is really on its game. You can file your claim and submit photos and videos of the damage online, communicating with a company representative by live chat or phone as needed.

Claims involving multiple drivers or medical bills typically take longer to resolve. So do claims involving serious damage to vehicles or other property. In these cases, a claims adjuster might need to examine the damage in person.

But state law requires insurance carriers to act on claims within a certain period after receiving them. A typical timeline is 30 days to decide and another week or two to cut the check. To speed up the process, use a carrier-approved dealership or body shop for repairs and respond promptly to outreach from your insurance company.

Will Filing a Claim Affect My Auto Insurance Rate?

It depends on your auto insurance company, your policy, and factors specific to you, such as your age and driving record. Generally, filing a successful auto insurance claim does increase your premium, but a lot depends on the type of claim and whether your insurance company cuts good drivers a break. 

If it has been longer than five years since you last filed a car insurance claim or you’ve never filed one at all, your insurance company might disregard your first claim. In that case, your premium won’t increase when your policy comes up for renewal.

Otherwise, expect your premium to spike after your claim — anywhere from 25% to 50% or more. It’s likely to remain elevated for several years, though factors like vehicle depreciation and reducing or eliminating collision and comprehensive coverage could help you trim your costs over time. 

If you’re under 25, you’re considered higher risk than older drivers, so your premium increase could be particularly painful.  

Will Car Insurance Cover Temporary Alternate Transportation?

It depends on your policy. Alternate transportation coverage isn’t required by law or included as a standard coverage in most auto insurance policies, so you must have already added it to get coverage for your current claim. 

If you did, expect your insurer to cover alternate transportation for up to 30 days, which should be enough time to get your car repaired or find a permanent replacement. Most often, you’re reimbursed for out-of-pocket rental car expenses or your insurer pays the rental car company directly. If you don’t drive much and don’t need a rental car, your insurer might pick up the tab for a public transit pass or rideshare fares as needed.

Many dealerships provide loaner cars at no cost to drivers. If you’re getting your vehicle repaired at a shop that offers this service, you might not need alternate transportation coverage.

What Happens if I’m in a Car Accident With an Uninsured Driver?

Your auto insurance policy might include uninsured motorist coverage. It’s required in some states and optional in others. Check your policy documents or call your insurance agent if you’re unsure whether your policy includes it.

If you have uninsured motorist coverage, your policy should cover accident-related medical expenses and related costs up to the policy’s limits. If you have collision coverage, your policy should cover damage to your vehicle too, even if you’re at fault for the accident. 

And if you don’t have uninsured motorist coverage, you have a difficult decision to make: Eat the cost of accident-related expenses or take the uninsured driver to court. The latter is expensive, time-consuming, and could be futile if the uninsured driver can’t afford to pay. 

What Happens if Someone Else Is Driving My Car & Has an Accident?

Assuming you’ve given the person permission to drive your car, your insurance policy should cover claims under your policy’s collision and comprehensive coverages as if you were driving. 

For those two types of claims, your car insurance policy attaches to the car itself — not you or any other individual driver. Sure, your driving record and that of any other driver named on your policy will affect your premiums. But your insurance company knows that life happens and you’re not guaranteed to be the only person who ever drives your car. Just be prepared to swear under oath that you gave the person permission to drive.

But there are exceptions to this rule. 

If a person you know “borrows” your car without your knowledge or permission, your insurance company might classify them as a “nonpermissive” driver and refuse to cover the accident. 

Likewise, if you’ve explicitly excluded a household member from your policy because they have a terrible driving record, your policy won’t cover accidents they cause.

Finally, if the driver was intoxicated or doesn’t have a valid driver’s license, your insurance company might refuse to cover the accident too. And if you permitted them to drive knowing they were intoxicated, you could be personally liable for whatever damage they cause.

But that only applies to collision and comprehensive claims. Liability follows the driver, not the vehicle, so a driver who borrows your car would be liable under their own auto insurance policy — if they have one. If not, your policy could pick up the tab. But if the value of the liability claim exceeds your policy’s coverage limits, the other driver could sue you for the difference.

Does Car Insurance Cover Possessions Inside My Vehicle?

Comprehensive coverage generally covers vandalism, burglary, and other human activities that cause damage to your car while it’s not in operation. But the vehicle’s contents may be another matter — they’re more likely to be covered by your renters insurance or homeowners insurance policy

What Happens if My Claim Is Denied?

If the company denies your car insurance claim, you’ll receive an official-looking letter explaining why. Read this letter carefully to understand the insurance company’s reasoning and determine the appropriate next steps.

Once that’s done, figure out whether you have any hope of getting the insurance company to reverse its decision. If you filed a claim for a type of coverage you don’t have or forgot to renew your policy and bring premiums current, the denial is going to be final. 

If you believe your auto insurance company denied your claim in error, you can appeal and ask for reconsideration. 

When you appeal, resubmit any documentation provided with your initial claim as well as any other information that has come to light. For example, if you didn’t include the police report with your initial claim, send it in when you appeal. 

Include a detailed appeal letter explaining how each document supports your claim. Reference the specific sections of your policy you believe cover the claim as well. If you need help or don’t want to press your case on your own, consider hiring an insurance attorney to represent you.


Final Word

It’s wise to carry a roadside survival kit on long road trips — not because you love placing flares or chowing down on nutrition bars but because you want to come out on the other side of a breakdown in one piece.

Knowing how to file a car insurance claim is sort of like having a roadside survival kit for your finances. While you’d prefer not to have to put this knowledge to work at all, it’s good to have it in your back pocket. The alternative is a hefty out-of-pocket expense that could erode your savings or force you into debt.

Fortunately, the best car insurance companies make it easy to file auto insurance claims. Often, you can file your entire claim online and get through the whole process with just a couple of phone or live chat conversations. And while you won’t get your money immediately after claim approval, you should have it in hand by the time your medical or repair bills come due. 

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Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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