Getting into an accident is stressful enough, but if you’ve never filed a claim with your car insurance company, you may find yourself even more stressed. Navigating the claims process can feel tricky, but Bankrate is here to help. Our insurance editorial team breaks down the steps to follow when you’re filing a claim, so you can file your claim without worry.

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Key takeaways
  • After a car accident, gathering information at the scene can be one of the most important steps in the claims process.
  • You can use any body shop to repair your vehicle after the damage; you are not required to use a company’s preferred vendors.
  • Depending on the details of an accident, you may choose to handle it out of pocket rather than filing a claim.

When to file an insurance claim

An insurance claim may be the last thing on your mind immediately after an auto accident, but you actually don’t have to file a claim immediately. Depending on the state you live in, you may have a longer time frame to file a claim, although filing sooner can help you get back to normal faster. Following an accident, you may want to contact your insurance agent and file a claim, especially if the damage is serious or injuries are involved.

Filing a claim can protect you in a number of ways. Your insurance company can also help by paying up to your policy limits on any property damages or injuries you caused while driving. It can also help you pay for any legal costs if you are taken to court.

How to file an auto insurance claim

The process of filing an auto insurance claim starts at the scene of the accident. Here are the steps you should take immediately after the accident up until you get your insurance claim completed.

1. Gather the necessary information to help you file your claim

Before you leave the scene of the accident, it’s important to gather certain types of information, like the other driver’s vehicle information, the insurance information for all parties, the contact information of any witnesses and anything else that may be relevant to the accident. Be sure to avoid assigning or admitting fault to yourself or others. Unless in a no-fault state, it will be up to the insurance companies and the police to determine who was at fault.

It’s also typically a good idea to take photos of the damage to both cars if you can. Do not, however, allow anyone else to take a photo of your driver’s license, which could leave you open to identity theft. It will likely be helpful to have the photos and information you gathered on hand when calling your insurance company to make a claim after the accident. It can also help to supplement the information from the police report.

2. Call your auto insurance company

If you can, call your insurer before you leave the scene of the accident, but don’t call until you are safe and have talked to the police and exchanged information with the other driver. Many insurance companies allow you to file a claim online or via a mobile app, but you may prefer to call and talk to a live person so you can be sure you’re doing everything they need you to do.

If your car is not driveable, your provider may call a tow truck if the police haven’t already. If you have rental car coverage, your insurer could start the process of getting you in another vehicle immediately.

3. Speak with a claims specialist

After ascertaining that you’re okay and taking down the details of the accident, the insurance agent will assign your case to a claims specialist or adjuster. This person will work with you through the process of filing your claim and getting paid for the damage done to your car.

A claims specialist will answer any questions you have about the process and will take the lead in ensuring that you’re paid fairly for your damages. If the other driver is at fault, the adjuster will represent you in dealings with that driver’s insurance company.

Your claims specialist may go see your car to assess and photograph the damage, or they may rely on the photos and reports from the repair facility to determine the level of damage. If your coverage includes a rental car and you didn’t take care of it in your initial call to the company, your adjuster will help you to reserve a rental car for your use.

4. Assess the damage

Your claims specialist is the one who will determine the level of damage to your vehicle, including deciding if your car is totaled. You may be surprised at how little damage it takes to make your car not worth fixing, especially if it’s an older car.

There are several insurance amendments, or add-ons, that may affect this part of the process. If you have a newer car, for example, and have new car replacement coverage, your insurer would pay to put you in a new car if your current vehicle is totaled. Because depreciation starts the moment you drive off the lot, this coverage could save you thousands of dollars over what you might get for the market value of your totaled car. Gap insurance is another amendment that may also help you. If you have a loan on your vehicle, gap coverage pays the difference between the totaled amount of your new vehicle and your loan balance.

You may also be eligible for diminished claims value, which is the difference in value of your car before and after the accident. For example, if you go to sell the car that was in the accident, you may get less for it from a buyer simply because it was in an accident, even though it’s been repaired. Your claims specialist can tell you if you’re eligible for this coverage or not.

5. Obtain a repair estimate

After your claims specialist has looked at your car and determined that it’s not totaled, you’ll receive an estimate for repairing your vehicle from your insurer. Some insurers have vendors that they work with for repairs and while working with these shops may make the process faster, you always have the right to choose any repair facility that you like.

Do not approve of any repairs until you have the company’s estimate in hand. You want to be sure that repairs can be paid for out of the amount that has been approved by your insurer.

6. Follow up on your claim and troubleshoot any problems

If you have a reliable car insurance company and an experienced claims specialist, the process should go smoothly. If it doesn’t, your company should act as your advocate throughout the process, especially if you’re dealing with the other person’s insurer as well.

If you run into problems, your first course of action is to call your company and find out if there is a customer care representative or ombudsman who is charged with handling complaints. Hopefully they will be able to work out a satisfactory solution for you.

If not, or if the amount you receive does not seem to you to be fair or in keeping with what you have been paying for, there is an ultimate authority who can step in to help: your state’s Department of Insurance. You should be able to file a complaint with this agency (many states feature online complaint forms) if you feel that your claim hasn’t been handled correctly. Search for your state’s name and “Department of Insurance” to find its website.

What happens after the claim is filed?

When you file a claim with your insurance company, you’ll set the claims process in motion. After your claim is filed, a few things will happen:

  • You’ll talk with an adjuster: The first step after you file a claim is to talk with the assigned claims representative. You’ll likely give a recorded statement of the accident.
  • Get an estimate for repairs: You may actually meet your adjuster at a body shop, or you might be asked to submit an estimate for the repairs. You can do this from one of your company’s preferred body shops or choose a shop you’ve worked with previously.
  • Receive an offer for compensation: After you’ve given your insurance adjuster the estimate, you’ll receive an offer for compensation for the damages. Usually, this matches the estimate, but it may be lower if the company feels that the estimate is too high.
  • Repair your vehicle: Generally, if you use a company’s preferred body shop, the adjuster will pay the body shop for the repairs directly and you’ll only have to pay your deductible. If you use your own body shop, you’ll likely get a check for the agreed-upon amount and can then pay the shop yourself.

If your claim is denied, you have a few options. First, you may want to contact your insurance company and ask to have the case reviewed by another adjuster. You could also consider hiring a lawyer, depending on the circumstances. Keep in mind, though, that there are legitimate reasons for a company to deny your claim. Your policy could be lapsed, for example, or you don’t have the required coverage to pay for the damage that occured.

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