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Filing a car insurance claim

Two people looking at phone in front of damaged car
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Two people looking at phone in front of damaged car
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No one imagines that they will end up in a car accident, but it happens way too often. There were about 5.2 million police-reported motor vehicle crashes in 2020 alone, which means that a large percentage of drivers will be involved in an accident at some point or another. And when it does happen, you may be confused, upset or agitated.

While getting in an accident can be stressful and frightening, it’s important to keep a cool head. If you understand what to do after an accident, and how to properly file an insurance claim, you will be better prepared to take the right steps and move on from the incident. Here’s how to file an auto insurance claim, along with information on the other steps you should take after an accident.

When to file an insurance claim

An insurance claim may be the last thing on your mind immediately after an accident. Depending on the state you live in, you may be able to file a claim after some time following an accident. That said, every state differs regarding the rules for car accident claims and reports. Following an accident, you should always contact your insurance agent and file a claim, even if the other driver tries to reach an agreement without getting your insurer involved.

Filing a claim can protect you in a number of ways, and may prevent the other driver from suing you for damages later on. 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. 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 with your cell phone camera 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, they will start the process of getting you in another car 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 good claims specialist will answer any questions you have about the process and will take the lead in ensuring that you’re getting all the money you are owed. If the other driver is at fault, the adjuster will represent you in dealings with that driver’s insurance company.

Your claims specialist will probably go see your car to assess and photograph the damage. If your coverage includes a rental car and you didn’t take care of it in your initial call to the company, he or she will help you to reserve a rental car for your use. If you filled out your own accident form at the site, you’ll want to give a copy of that to the specialist.

4. Assess the damage

Your claims specialist is the one who will determine 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 will 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 Kelly’s Blue Book value of your totaled car. Your claims specialist can tell you how that works. Gap insurance is another amendment that may also help you if this is the case.

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 others let you choose your preferred vendor.

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 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 justice has not been served. Search for your state’s name and “Department of Insurance” to find their website.

What happens after the claim is filed?

Once you have filed a claim with your insurance company, the provider will send an adjuster to review the vehicle and property damages. The adjuster will ask for other important documents such as the police report, witnesses, photos of the damage and any estimates for repairs. The adjuster will then give payouts to the other driver involved in the accident.

The adjuster will also look at the damages done and determine whether you need repairs or whether the damages result in a total loss. Then you’ll know whether you will receive a settlement for repairs or a reimbursement for loss.

If you’re entitled to settlements for repairs, you will be able to choose a repair shop of your choice. If you’re entitled to a reimbursement for total loss, the adjuster will write you a check based on the value of your car, which can be calculated by dividing your vehicle’s repair cost by its actual cash value.

Frequently asked questions

Written by
Grace Kim
Insurance Contributor
Grace Kim has two years of experience in writing for finance and insurance domains such as The Cheapest Car Insurance Companies in New Jersey at Bankrate and Reviews.com. She has written about auto, homeowners, renters and life insurance. She has spent most of her professional experience writing about finance and tech topics.
Edited by
Insurance Editor