Do One Thing: File an auto insurance claim (time: 30 minutes or less)
So you had a fender bender. (Or worse.) The last thing on your mind is probably how you’re going to make an insurance claim, but it’s a necessary part of the process. Here’s how it works.
This is for you: If you’ve been in an accident and plan to file an insurance claim to cover your costs.
Hands-on time: Less than half an hour for the actual claims-filing process. The hands-on time for gathering evidence and documentation and completing necessary repairs on your car will vary depending on the circumstances.
Total time: Depends on the accident and your insurance company. Insurance companies usually turn claims around within a week, unless there’s a serious liability dispute. If you decline your insurer’s initial estimate offer, the arbitration process could last two to six weeks. If you decline the other insurance company’s estimate, or the other driver is uninsured, legal action may be necessary. If you accept the estimate offer, repairing your car depends entirely on the extent of the damage.
Cost: There is no charge to file an auto insurance claim. However, if another driver wasn’t at fault, you’ll be responsible for your policy deductible (usually $500 to $1,000), and your insurance rates may go up in the future. NOTE: If the amount of damage done to your car is less than the deductible on your auto insurance (or just slightly more), it probably makes more sense to pay for the repairs out of pocket instead of filing a claim. If you were at fault, any claim you make could affect your insurance rates in the future.
What you’ll need:
- A claims contact number for your auto insurer
- Information you collected at the scene of the accident, including (if applicable):
- Names, addresses and phone numbers of the other drivers
- Auto insurance information for other drivers
- Vehicle descriptions, license plate numbers and VIN numbers
- Other drivers’ statements, witness statements
- The police report
- Photographic evidence of damage
What to do:
1. First of all, if you’ve had an accident and you (or someone else) need medical attention, that’s your first priority.
2. If it was a minor accident, move your vehicle to a safe spot, out of the flow of traffic.
3. If you can, turn on your car’s hazard lights so other drivers can spot you. (Are you one of those uber prepared drivers and you’ve got flares or cones in your car? Use ‘em.)
4. Call the police, even if it was a minor fender-bender. The police may be reluctant to file a traffic accident report, but you should insist on at least an incident report. It’s important to get something in writing.
- If the accident occurred in a parking lot, the officer may claim no jurisdiction; in that case, try to file a report with security, or as a last resort, a shop owner or manager on the premises.
5. Collect as much documentation and evidence as you can, given the circumstances. Take pictures (got a camera phone?), get statements from witnesses, and ask for contact info from other parties. (Note: If the name on the other driver’s vehicle registration is different from the driver’s, note the relationship.)
6. Discuss the accident with the police, not with the other driver or drivers (if any), and do not admit fault or liability. (Some people are quick to apologize after an accident—avoid this.)
7. Sometimes all drivers may agree that they’d rather handle the financial issues without involving insurance companies, and that’s fine. But even if the other party admits fault, get a police report or something in writing. Regardless of whether you file a claim, you may be required to tell your insurer that you were involved in an accident.
8. After an official legal report has been filed with the proper authorities, call your insurance company—many have 24-hour numbers. (Because your insurer is who you want to talk to at 3 a.m., right?) The company representative should be able to walk you through the claim process. Make sure you have all your documentation readily available.
9. Ask about the timeline for filing a claim, talking to other parties, issuing an estimate, and issuing a check.
10. If another party was involved, you’ll probably be contacted by the other party’s insurance company and you’ll have to give a statement. Make sure your story is consistent and completely factual. (As it turns out, insurance companies aren’t big into fabrication.)
- Note: Write up your version of events while the facts are still fresh in your mind, and save it somewhere safe. If a dispute occurs and you have to refer back to it, you’ll be glad you did.
11. If the claim is over damage to your car, your insurer may send an adjuster to estimate the damage and repair costs, or you may need to take your car to a pre-approved auto shop. After the adjuster has estimated the damage (or the actual cash value of your car, if it’s totaled), the insurer will call you with an offer, which you can accept or decline.
12. If the accident wasn’t your fault, you can have either your insurer or the at-fault driver’s insurer handle the repair or replacement of your vehicle. If you use the other driver’s company, you won’t have a claim on your auto policy and you won’t have to pay a deductible.
13. If you accept the insurer’s offer, the company will send you a check (minus any deductible on your policy) and you can use it to get your car fixed. The company can also send payment directly to the repair shop. Sometimes you’ll also be offered a rate on a rental car.
14. If you decline your insurer’s estimate (you think it’s too low, for instance), you can ask for a second appraisal from a different repair shop or for a form of arbitration. That process could take two to six weeks, but usually the insurer will pay you the amount it offered initially, and you’ll get the balance if and when the dispute is resolved in your favor.
15. If the offer is coming from the other driver’s insurer and you decline it, that company’s dispute process may be different, and legal action may be necessary.
16. If the other driver doesn’t have insurance, you’ll have to deal with the driver directly or go to court. (Check out the article on filing a claim in small claims court.)
17. If you also intend to file for personal injury costs, contact a lawyer. You’ll need to do this in a timely manner and have the police report and complete medical records on hand that document the extent of your injuries.
18. Congrats—you’ve run the insurance gauntlet! Here’s hoping it turned out in your favor.
To learn more:
Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot: When to File That Auto Insurance Claim (Insure.com) When NOT to File a Claim (MSN Money)
Did you do it? Tell us what worked or share other tips in the comments below.
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