Car Insurance Claims Tips

If you crash your vehicle or you're otherwise involved in an accident, you're going to have to file a claim with your insurance company. Here's what you need to know about the claim process.

two cars in accident

No one expects to get into an accident when they get behind the wheel of their car. Still, that's exactly what happens to a surprising number of Americans each and every day. In fact, according to a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report, six million vehicle crashes occurred in 2015, while up to 10 million more crashes went unreported during the same year.

In other words, getting into an accident—whether it's your fault or not—is a bigger possibility than most people would like to admit. Which means you should be well prepared for the steps that you'll need to take in the event that it does. One of those steps should be to pick up the phone and let your insurance company know about the situation. But what should you do, or what can you expect to happen, after that? Read on to find out.

First, Get to Know Your Policy

Before we get to the above, though, a piece of advice for anyone reading this who has yet to get into some sort of traffic mishap: if you haven't already done so, familiarize yourself with your car insurance policy.

Specifically, read it over and make sure you're as up-to-date as possible as to the protections it offers. Do you have collision coverage, for example? If so, that's what you'll call on if there was damage to your vehicle during an accident. (You'll usually have to pay some portion of your repair bill before the insurance company will lend a helping hand.) How about rental reimbursement coverage? You'll need to have that if you want your insurer to pay for you to drive a rental car while your vehicle is in the shop. Finally, check to see if your policy includes either medical payments or personal injury protection coverage, as they will help you when it comes to expenses stemming from any injuries you may sustain in a crash. If you find you need additional coverage, take a moment to compare car insurance quotes to find the best rates on the right coverage.

Do These Things Right After an Accident

Developing a solid understanding of what your car insurance policy will and won't cover goes a long way toward making the next steps of this process as painless as possible.

Speaking of which, here are some of the things you should do in the seconds, minutes, hours, and even days that follow in the wake of a crash:

  • If needed, call the police or 911
  • Take photos of the vehicles involved (especially your own)
  • Write down or otherwise make note of some relevant details related to the accident: date, time, the other person's name, their license plate number, the make and model of their vehicle, their registration information, the name of their insurance company, and that company's contact information
  • Also get the names and phone numbers of anyone who witnessed the crash, as well as the names and badge numbers of any police officials who arrive on the scene

It's possible you won't need to hand over all of this information to your insurance company after you file a claim, but it's also possible that you will, so err on the side of caution here.

Now Call Your Insurance Company

With all of that out of the way, your next step is going to be to let your insurer know what has happened.

Most experts suggest getting this out of the way within 72 hours of your accident, but of course calling or contacting the company sooner than that—such as in the hours immediately following the fender-bender—is more than acceptable. (Note: If you bought your policy from a major carrier, you'll likely begin by calling a toll-free number or filling out an online form.)

Don't expect anyone you speak with to be able to give you much information at this point. Still, before you hang up or log off, be sure to ask for the name of the adjuster you'll be working with moving forward, the phone number of the office that will be handling your claim, your claim number, and when you can expect to hear from your adjuster or someone else who will be working on your claim.

The person on the other end of the line may not know or be able to give you all of this information, but it can't hurt to ask for it anyway.

An Adjuster Appears

At some point after completing all of the above, you should hear from an adjuster. This person either will work for your insurance company (as an employee) or with it (as an independent contractor). Regardless, this is the person who will decide who's at fault when it comes to your accident and who will determine the extent of the insurer's liability.

He or she accomplishes that by interviewing claimants (in this case, you) and any witnesses, looking at police and medical records, examining vehicle damage, and reviewing the extent of your coverage.

What to Expect from Your Interview

Don't worry too much about the fact that your adjuster will want to "interview" you in the days that follow your accident. This basically just means he or she will ask you a series of questions to gain a better understanding of what happened. A few examples:

  • Where is your car right now?
  • Was there damage?
  • Was anyone injured?

Your claims adjuster will likely ask you to walk them through the accident.

They may ask to record that statement, or even their entire interview with you. Whether or not you agree to that is up to you, as you aren't required to provide them with a recorded statement.

Some experts will tell you to go ahead and agree to it, while others will suggest that you say no but otherwise cooperate with the investigation (by answering their questions, telling them what you know, etc.).

Ask About Rental Reimbursement Here

If you're at all confused as to whether or not your car insurance will cover the cost of a rental car while you wait for repairs, bring that up with your adjuster during this initial conversation.

In most cases, your policy will cap this coverage at a certain amount, such as $20 or $25 a day.

Also, your adjuster probably will suggest you go with a specific rental car company. You can follow that advice if you'd like, or you can go with a company of your choosing.

Talking Shop

With all of that out of the way, your adjuster will discuss with you how they're going to estimate how much of your losses they will cover. They'll also get the ball rolling regarding getting your car repaired.

Although they'll probably recommend that you take your vehicle to a particular mechanic—with whom they have a relationship, of course—you shouldn't feel any particular need to use that facility. So, if you would prefer to use someone you have experience with, for example, feel free to do that.

Just be sure to tell your adjuster which one you decide to go with, as they (or someone else at the insurance company) will then work with the shop to determine a price for your vehicle's repairs that both sides are willing to accept.

Don't Forget: The Adjuster is Not Your Friend

Something to keep in mind throughout the time you work with your insurance company to resolve your claim is that the adjuster who is assigned to you isn't your advocate—even though he or she may try to make it seem as though that's the case.

That's not to suggest you should treat this person as an adversary, because you shouldn't. But you also shouldn't forget that the adjuster's goal is to save the insurance company as much money as possible.

Go Over Your Adjuster's Head, if Need Be

If at any time during your dealings with the insurance company's adjuster you feel as though they're dragging their feet or dropping the ball or otherwise failing to resolve your claim in a reasonable amount of time, consider going over their head.

Specifically, consider contacting the following people:

  • The agent who sold you your policy (this tactic could prove especially helpful if the agent in question is an independent one who represents a number of insurers)
  • The director or manager or whoever is in charge in your adjuster's office (forget about calling your adjuster's supervisor, as that person usually won't offer much assistance)
  • The director of vice president of claims at your insurance company's headquarters or home office

If none of those efforts pay dividends for you, file a complaint with your state insurance commissioner’s office. Although they probably won't be able to force your insurance company to do much, if anything, in your favor, they may be able to answer some of your questions that otherwise would be ignored.

Another possibility, of course, is to hire an attorney—but you'll probably want to hold off on doing that until you've exhausted every other option.

Keep Detailed Records

While it is important to keep detailed records related to your entire accident and claim experience, it's especially important to do so once you start working with an adjuster.

That way, if things turn sour and you feel the need to involve the adjuster's superiors in the situation, you'll be able to prove just how much you've done—or how much the adjuster hasn't done—before you brought them into the fold.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Do I have to inform my insurance company of an accident even if it's not my fault?

A: You are contractually obligated to report any and all accidents to the company that sold you your car insurance, yes. That doesn't prevent a lot of people from failing to let their insurers know about minor fender-benders or other similar mishaps that they'd prefer to deal with privately, of course.

The thing is, keeping this kind of information to yourself could come back to haunt you in the future. A case in point: say your car is broken into a few times and you have the window repaired without involving your insurance company. A few weeks later, someone steals your car, and at some point during the claims process the news of your recent break-ins is revealed. This could void your policy due to you breaching your contract.

Q: What if I'm injured during an accident? Who handles all of that?

A: You should discuss this during your initial conversation with an adjuster. That said, you'll probably have to involve the other driver's insurance company at some point, too, and that's where things could get interesting.

Thankfully, the Consumer Federation of America has a few pointers for people who find themselves in this situation. For example, if the other driver's adjuster asks you for your social security number, the CFA recommends against handing it over.

Similarly, the CFA suggests you politely decline if he or she asks you to sign a medical authorization form that would allow them to obtain and review your medical bills and records. You'll then have to do the legwork needed to obtain and pass along those bills and records, but at least in that case you can remove from those documents your social security number as well as any medical information that isn't relevant to the accident.

Finally, the opposing adjuster will ask you to sign a release of all claims. Agreeing to that means you won't be able to seek further reimbursement for your injuries from that insurance company in the future, so don't do it while treating your injuries or if your condition has yet to be resolved.

Q: What if the person who crashes into me is an uninsured or underinsured driver? Does that change anything?

A: Surprisingly, it doesn't change things as much as you might think it would. You can handle this behind the scenes with your insurance company. When the driver who caused the accident is underinsured, for instance, your insurer will work with that person's insurance company to settle the matter. On the other hand, when the driver in question is uninsured, your insurer will pay you—depending on what kinds of coverage you have, of course—and then go after the uninsured driver in an attempt to claim reimbursement for what was paid out to you.

Q: If I'm not responsible for an accident, can I file a claim with the insurance company that represents the driver who was responsible?

A: Yes, you can. Don't expect that company's representatives to be all that helpful, though. So, if they regularly refuse to provide straight answers to your questions, or if they continually drag their feet in terms of resolving your claim, you may have to cut your losses and either seek the assistance of an attorney or file a claim with your own insurance company.

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