Steps to Take When Filing an Auto Insurance Claim

Because most drivers don't make a habit of wrecking their vehicles, the car insurance claim process is usually a novel one. The average policyholder does not even know where to begin when the time comes to file, let alone how to see the process through to completion.

If you're in that boat, this section will guide you through every aspect of a claim. The following articles will explain how to prepare to file, how to actually file, and how to follow up if necessary once there is a settlement.

Before You File: Preparation Checklist

Your level of preparation will directly impact how quickly the process will take. The best preparation begins even before an accident takes place and is supplemented by the collection of information at the scene of the accident. You will also need to do some follow-up research after the incident has occurred to deal with the insurance adjuster and see a resolution. Below, you will find a checklist that enumerates everything you will need throughout the process.

  • Your insurer's contact information. Almost all major carriers have a 1-800 number that policyholders can call day or night to initiate a collision claim. This number should be written on your proof-of-insurance card, which you should always carry with you. If your provider has no such number, make sure you have your agent's contact information so you can begin the process that way.
  • The police report. At the scene of the incident, an officer will provide you with a copy of the associated police report. The report should contain all of the information you need, including a description of what happened, who was at fault, the names of the other drivers, and the license plates of the vehicles involved. Your provider will likely ask you for information from this report when you file.
  • The other parties' information. Ideally, the police report will contain all of the information you need to know about the other drivers involved in the collision. If it doesn't, however, you will need to collect the information yourself. Find out the names and driver's license numbers of all parties involved and take note of vehicle license plate numbers. Exchange insurance information with everyone who was involved and make sure you have the contact number for the other drivers' providers.
  • A repair estimate from a body shop. Before you meet with the adjuster, you should have an estimate ready from an approved body shop on the work your car will need. Call your provider before you do this, as some carriers will only deal with certain body shops.

Filing: Step-by-Step Guide

With over 220 million vehicles in the United States currently, it's highly probable that you will have a collision with at least one of them and have to file at some point. Whether it is for physical damage to your car, personal injuries, or both, your carrier will require proof of the loss before paying. The items of proof that carriers typically use are your account of the accident, the other party's account of the incident, witness accounts, the police report, and evidence at the scene. Learn more about the burden of proof and how to start the process in the following seven-step guide.

  1. Call the police.Use 9-1-1 if someone is seriously hurt; otherwise call your local police directly. You need the police report as proof for your claim.
  2. Exchange information. For each party involved in the incident, get contact information, car insurance details, and license plate numbers. Make sure you have phone numbers for all drivers and passengers at the scene of the collision. If you have a camera on you at the time, pictures will help you prove what happened, particularly if the incident took place on private property and thus no police report can be filed.
  3. Find any witnesses. A witness can help your case in the filing process, so find anyone who saw the incident and get his/her contact information. If you are unable to talk to the witnesses, the police report should fill in the information for you.
  4. Get in touch with your carrier ASAP. If you are safe and certain that everyone else is safe as well, you can call your provider directly from the scene of the collision to begin the process. On your insurance ID card, a contact phone number should be listed, and the number is usually available 24 hours a day. Even if another driver was at fault, you should still file with your own carrier.
  5. Contact the other party's provider. If you were not at fault in the collision, you might want to contact the other party's auto insurer as well to notify them that you have chosen to pursue reimbursment through your own carrier. Let them know that you will want to be reimbursed for any expenses your company will not pay.
  6. Provide a statement to the provider. Eventually, the other party's company will call you for a statement regarding the incident. Be prepared for this phone call—write down what you will say beforehand, especially for physical injury situations. Don't rely on your memory. The party who contacts you will be taping the statement you make, and if you're inconsistent, it could hurt you in the event of a lawsuit or other dispute.
  7. Meet with the insurance adjuster. An auto adjuster will meet with you to assess the damage to your car. The adjuster will provide an estimate on how much it will cost to repair or replace your vehicle. After the meeting, the company will write you a check for the amount of the settlement less any deductibles.

Filing Missteps: What Not to Do

Unless you habitually wreck your car, you probably do not have a wealth of experience with the subsequent steps to take. You are not alone; most policyholders are inexperienced in filing car accident claims, which is why mistakes are so common. Although small oversights during the filing process are unlikely to have serious repercussions, major mistakes could result in the denial of your claim in the worst-case scenario. Avoid that fate by reading up on the things you should never do after an incident.

  • Failing to notify the proper authorities. After a minor accident, the other driver may try to coerce you into keeping the matter private by not calling the police. Usually, drivers try this approach when they are either uninsured or do not want their rates to go up afterwards. Don't fall for this plea or you'll make one of the biggest mistakes possible. Always call the police after an collision when appropriate. Otherwise, you could be left with a damaged car and an empty promise from the other driver.
  • Not exchanging information. In order to file, you will need to have the full information of all the drivers involved in the incident. Once everyone involved is safe, you will need to get each driver's name, address, policy number, insurer name, vehicle make and model, driver's license number, and license plate number. The last two pieces of information are particularly important if the information a driver gives you turns out to be spurious. With a license number, you have a way of tracking the driver down.
  • Falsifying information. Insurance fraud is a serious crime, and you will likely be prosecuted if caught. Additionally, your claim will be denied if you are untruthful, which means you will be out a lot of money as well. Never embellish any information you provide or twist the truth in your favor. Insurers can conduct an investigation into the incident, and the truth almost always comes to light one way or another. If your carrier discovers fraudulent elements, your coverage will most likely be canceled, after which you might be completely uninsurable. Lying at any point in the process puts you at serious financial and legal risk and raises costs more than $1,800 annually for the average American family, so be truthful.
  • Waiting to file. Most providers have 24-hour phone numbers that policyholders can use to initiate the process at any time of the day. You would do well to call this number as soon as you have addressed the immediate aftermath of the collision. The longer you wait to file, the longer it will take for your insurer to pay it.
  • Not understanding your coverage. Read over your policy carefully before or immediately after you file to learn exactly what is and is not covered. That way, if the insurer denies your case, you can object to the decision if it is unwarranted.

When Things Go Wrong: What to Do If You Have Trouble Settling

Car insurers are not always eager to part with a settlement, especially when dealing with a claimant who is not a policyholder of theirs. Insurers can drag their heels, stonewall, and use other stall tactics to avoid or delay having to pay out. If you are experiencing difficulty reaching a settlement, there are certain things you can do to goad the insurer into action. Read on for tactics that will help you move closer to a settlement.

Be Proactive by Writing a Demand Letter

Typically, the insurance adjuster is the first party to act by contacting you, the claimant, with a settlement offer. If you have not yet received such an offer or are dissatisfied with the offer you received, you can write a demand letter to the carrier specifying the settlement you want. In the demand letter, you explain the reason for your claim, enumerate all of the expenses you incurred as a result of the accident, and attach documentation to substantiate those expenses. For example, if you've had an independent appraisal performed to assess the damage to your vehicle, you can attach the appraiser's written report. Likewise, you can attach medical bills, paystubs for lost wages, etc.

Eventually, the adjuster will respond with a counteroffer, which will likely be substantially lower than the settlement you demanded. You can continue the negotiations in writing until you reach a settlement that is mutually agreeable. Remember that adjusters are authorized to offer a settlement range to claimants, and they usually start negotiating at the lower end of that range.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Before claims can be litigated, if at all, they usually must first go through some type of alternative dispute resolution process, such as mediation or arbitration. Your policy will specify the dispute resolution process you must go through if you object to the settlement you are offered. If you would like to begin this process, you should inform the provider of your request and seek legal counsel. Typically, the results of arbitration are binding, but an attorney could be helpful in advising you of your rights and how best to proceed.

The Insurance Department

Sometimes, all it takes to put an company's feet to the fire is to threaten to file a complaint with the state department of insurance. Put your intention to do so in writing and send it to the provider. If you still see no progress and do not receive an acceptable settlement, proceed with the complaint. You can call your insurance department or, in most states, file a complaint online. If the agency decides the complaint was merited, it can investigate your situation and possibly force the carrier to pay your settlement.

The Aftermath: How Your Rates are Affected

Filing on your policy is a sure way to raise your rates. Of course, a few exceptions do exist, but they are few and far between. By and large, if you file, you can be almost certain that your premiums will rise in the near future. Contrary to popular belief, insurers do not charge higher rates after an accident to recoup what they lost in paying out your settlement. Rather, providers have found that policyholders who have recently filed also represent an elevated future risk, which is why they pay more for coverage.

The impact a claim will have on your premiums sometimes varies from at-fault and not-at-fault accidents. For at-fault situations, it's a safe bet that your costs will increase and you will have more trouble finding affordable coverage in the future. The only way you might escape a premium hike is if your company offers some type of accident-forgiveness program. The details of such programs vary by carrier, but they usually "forgive" the first incident you have, meaning it will not affect your rates. While some carriers will only forgive not-at-fault incidents, a growing number of major carriers will also forgive first-time, at-fault accidents if the driver has an otherwise spotless record.

For not-at-fault situations, unless you're the beneficiary of an accident forgiveness program like the one described above, you can count on incidents that were not your fault to raise your rates as well. Carriers are primarily concerned with what a collision costs them, not who was at fault. So if someone else causes an collision and you have to file because of it, you will pay the price in your future premiums.

Remember that your rate increase will not take effect immediately, but that doesn't mean that one isn't coming. Providers wait until your policy is up for renewal to raise your rates. Until your current coverage reaches its expiration date, you will continue paying the same rates. Watch for the spike, however, as soon as you renew your coverage. Also remember that most states permit companies to raise rates due to an incident for three years or more. That period begins when the rate increase goes into effect, not when the incident occurs.

How to File a Hit and Run Claim

Accidents are stressful and frustrating enough, not to mention costly and potentially life-threatening. But a hit-and-run situation can be even more troublesome because we are left questioning who's responsible, and whether there's any recourse. No matter if you're a passenger in a serious hit-and-run scenario, or if you simply see that someone hit your car in a parking lot and drove away, you need to be aware of your rights. This guide can help you through the process.

  • Call the police: If you are involved in a hit-and-run, call the authorities immediately. Leaving the scene of an collision can be considered a serious crime, and the police must be involved.
  • Do you have witnesses? If there are witnesses, you might be able to track down the driver through a vehicle description or license plate. Make sure you take down as much information as possible from the witnesses, and get the police involved.
  • Write down everything: Take notes, write down all of your recollections and get everything you can on paper. Your memory could be fuzzy later on, particularly if you were in the car during the accident. Document as much as you can, because you could need it at a later date.
  • Know your legal rights: Depending on the situation of the incident, if you track down the driver you could have rights to sue in civil court or in small-claims court. You might need to consult an attorney.
  • Know your coverage: Do you have a comprehensive and collision policy (also known as full-coverage)? If so, you should be covered by a hit-and-run, even if it's a simple fender bender that takes place in a parking lot. But if you have only liability coverage (otherwise known as minimum coverage) you probably won't be protected.
  • What about uninsured motorist protection? If you are able to track down the driver of the car, you might find out that he/she doesn't have coverage (which was why they fled the scene of the incident). If this is the case, and if you do not have uninsured motorist protection, you might not be protected at all for the collision.
  • Other legal issues: There are a number of legal issues and insurance regulations involved with hit-and-run accidents. You might be eligible for some funds from your car insurance policy, but not others because of your pursuit of civil clams. Make sure you ask questions, document every stage of the process and remain in contact with the police. You have to be your biggest advocate, so make sure you're prepared for any possibility.
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