How to File an Insurance Claim in 7 Steps

One of the most stressful things that can happen to you is a car accident. Even if there are no injuries, you’ll be shaken up and will probably have to deal with a damaged vehicle. What do you do next? How do you negotiate the auto insurance claims process? If you have a car insurance policy with a reputable, financially solid company, it shouldn’t be hard. In this article, we’ll look at the most common scenarios and show you how to best handle the situation.

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      When to file an auto insurance claim

      How you file a claim and whose insurance you file it with (yours or the other party’s) depends on what type of accident you’re in and who is at fault. Occasionally, if you can afford to pay for the damage out of pocket and the accident is your fault, it’s better to avoid filing a claim to prevent a rise in premiums. But in most other cases you’ll want to make sure to file a claim so you have your damage covered and be reimbursed for medical expenses, etc.

      Let’s look at the three most common outcomes of a car accident and the best way to deal with them.

      What if there is minor damage to my car?

      • If the accident was caused by the other driver: You’ll file a claim with that driver’s property liability insurance for damage to your car. Since the accident wasn’t your fault, you will not have to pay a deductible.
      • If you caused the accident: You’ll want to assess the damage to your car. If the damage doesn’t impact your ability to drive the car, consider not filing a claim. First, because the damage might not be more than your deductible, so you’ll be stuck with the cost anyway, and second, because your insurer is likely to raise your rates following a claim on an accident that you were responsible for.

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      What if there is major damage to my car?

      • If the other driver is at fault: File an insurance claim with their insurer, to be paid by their liability coverage. In addition to the amount you are paid for repairs to your car, you may also be eligible for a Diminished Value Claim. This is an amount that will be paid to you based on the fact that even after your repairs, your car is worth less than it was before the accident.
      • If you’re at fault: File an insurance claim with your company if you have collision insurance. If not, you may have to foot the bill for repairs yourself.
      • If the other driver is at fault but they have no or not enough insurance: In this case, your own insurer will cover repairs if you have uninsured/underinsured coverage.
      • If fault is not clear: Try your best to get clarity from the police, but if cause is undetermined, file claims with both your own and the other driver’s insurance, so you’re covering all your bases.
      • If damage is caused by something other than an accident: If your car was damaged by vandals, bad weather, falling objects or anything else that did not happen through an accident, file a claim with your insurer if you have comprehensive insurance. If not, you may need to shoulder the cost of repairs yourself.

      What if I am injured?

      • If it’s the other driver’s fault: File a claim through their bodily injury liability coverage.
      • If you have Personal Injury Protection (PIP) or Medical Payments coverage: Whether or not the accident is your fault, if you have PIP or MedPay as part of your own coverage, file a claim on it. It’s also a good idea to contact your health insurer to let them know you’ve been injured.
      • The other driver is under- or uninsured: File a claim to be paid through your uninsured/underinsured coverage, if you have it.

      Steps to take to file an auto insurance claim

      1. Remain calm, and call the police

      The first step may be the hardest: Don’t panic. Even if there are injuries, remain calm, retreat to a safe place if you’re still on the road and allow others to help as needed. If the accident was minor, it’s still a good idea to call in police assistance. They can listen to both drivers and write up a detailed and unbiased report that will be invaluable to your insurance company. If the other driver is confrontational, they will be there to keep you safe.

      While you’re waiting for the police, do the following if you can: First, refrain from admitting to any guilt related to the accident. If it’s safe to do so, take some quick cell phone photos of the damage to both cars or any other property damage. Write down notes in a generic accident report form if you have one tucked away in your glove compartment (which we recommend). And, if they’re willing, take down contact info for any bystanders or witnesses.

      2. Contact your insurance company

      If possible, contact your insurance company before you leave the site of the accident or first thing when you get home. They will have questions for you, so it will help if you have a copy of the police report. If you’re not able to get it at the accident site, you should be able to stop by your local police office within a day or two to get one once it’s been filed.

      You’ll need to know the details of your own car, such as the VIN number, as well as details on the other car and driver, and be able to clearly outline what happened during the accident. Be sure to note the name and contact information of the person you speak with at your insurance company.

      3. Work with your insurance adjuster

      The way auto insurance claims processing works, your insurer will assign a claims adjuster or claims management expert to your case once a file has been opened following your initial call. The adjuster will contact you to inspect the car or have it inspected at an approved repair shop. If it was not determined in the police report, the adjuster will assign fault for the accident.

      Note that it is possible for fault to be shared by both drivers, which may impact which insurer pays out on your claim and how much you are able to claim for. Note, as well, that you may contact a lawyer if you feel the insurer or the other driver’s insurer is not representing your interests appropriately, especially if a lawsuit results from the accident.

      4. Repair your car

      If you have rental car coverage as part of your auto insurance, you will have worked with your company to procure a car for your short-term use. Do not authorize any repairs to your car, however, until your adjuster has inspected it and approved those repairs. Take photos before and after the repair for your records.

      If you don’t have a preferred shop for your repairs, your insurer may recommend one that they have worked with before. Working with a preferred vendor may make it simpler for work to be authorized and the shop to be paid directly by your insurance company.

      5. Finish up the claims process

      Once your car is repaired, touch base with your insurance company so that they know you are satisfied and they can close your claim. If your car was totaled, let them know when you’ve purchased its replacement, especially if you will be staying with the same company for the new car’s policy.

      6. Troubleshooting

      If you are not happy with the resolution of your case, you have recourse to further action.

      Your first step would be to talk to your insurance agent. It’s in their interest to make sure you are satisfied with the whole process so as not to lose your business.

      See if your insurance company offers any service to allow you to appeal a decision on your claim. Some companies will reconsider your payout if you can provide solid evidence that shows why they should do so.

      If the above two steps don’t work to your satisfaction, your state’s department of insurance should accept complaints. You can often file one online, which they will review and help arbitrate.

      If, after all of the above, you still feel that you have not had your claim handled fairly, it is your right to hire a lawyer to look into it for you. Be aware, however, that legal costs can be high and you could be left paying them yourself.

      7. Moving on

      Whether your car was able to be repaired or was a total loss, the claim process should have been fairly painless, especially if you’ve followed our suggested steps above. Once it’s all over, it’s a good idea to review the process to ensure that you are satisfied with your claims payout. If not, this is an ideal time to consider switching to another auto insurance company. Most insurers offer free quotes — sometimes this can be done online — so it costs you nothing to compare your rate and see if you can do better elsewhere.

      Reviewed by

      • Aylea Wilkins
        Aylea Wilkins
        Insurance Editor

        Aylea Wilkins is an editor specializing in insurance for The Simple Dollar. After getting a degree in European studies and editing from Brigham Young University, she worked as a writer and editor for a variety of small websites before transitioning to the insurance field.