How to File an Auto Insurance Claim

Erin De Santiago
woman calling insurance

Getting into an accident or having your car broken into can be emotionally overwhelming. Struggling to find out how to properly handle the event with insurance can seem daunting. While different types of claims require different things, following some basic tips can help expedite your claim and streamline the process with the insurance adjuster.

At the Scene

There are a few key things to do as soon as vehicle damage occurs in order to to ensure that the claims process goes as smoothly as possible.

Take Photos

Take photos at the scene of an accident before the vehicles are moved if it's safe to do so without being in traffic. The photos should include any traffic signs and other important details in the area. Also include photos of the other person's insurance information and vehicle registration. This will avoid potential issues (such as hard-to-read handwriting, transposed letters or numbers, or lost paperwork) with important information the insurance company will need.

It's also important to take photos of your vehicle when it's been broken into, damaged in a storm, etc., as this can expedite the claims process. Especially during large storms, one of the biggest delays may be waiting on available claims staff who need to come evaluate the damage.

Get Everyone's Information

If you have passengers in the vehicle, ensure to get contact information from everyone. Some jurisdictions allow passengers to sue; this even includes spouses and family members in some states.

Be sure to look for witnesses and get their contact information at the scene. Even if you think the accident is completely the other person's fault, people can file injury claims down the line. Allowing a claims representative to get a witness statement at the start of a new claim can help cases with disputed liability, as well as those that end up in litigation.

Don't Make Agreements or Accept Cash

You should never accept cash at the scene from the other party, as doing so may forfeit your right to file a claim with your carrier. Never agree to just "walk away and forget about the accident," as it's not uncommon to have the other party materialize and file a lawsuit. If you never reported the claim to your carrier, this can cause a denial of coverage.

Steps for Filing an Auto Insurance Claim

car key and crash report

Whether you were at fault or not, you should always contact your own carrier first. In almost every case, your own carrier will set up the claim with the other person's insurance if it was not already reported by them. To file your own auto claim:

  1. Gather all the relevant info. You need your auto insurance policy, your contact information, and accident details like time, location, description of what happened, vehicle damage and injuries, witness names and contact information, and police report number (if applicable).
  2. Find out if you can file your claim online. Go online to see if your insurance company accepts online claims or if a mobile app might be available. Some companies that allow online claims may limit them to accidents with only minor property damage. They may also exclude unique scenarios like an accident between two vehicles you own or an accident involving your vehicle and other property you own (like a garage door).
  3. File your claim. If online filing is allowed, you can file in that way. Otherwise, you will need to contact your insurance company.
    • Fill out and submit the online form: You'll need to create an account if you don't already have one, and select the option to file a claim. Be sure to follow instructions and keep your confirmation number and claim number and/or representative information.
    • Call your insurance company or agent: When you call your insurance company, be sure to have the aforementioned information handy as you will need to provide it to an intake specialist. Any information that can help the adjuster review your claim prior to contacting you will be extremely helpful.
  4. Send supporting documentation. Once you have a claim number assigned, you may need to send the scene photos you took, copies of any medical bills, repair estimates, or other information that helps support your claim and the damages for which you are seeking reimbursement.
  5. Ask important questions. If you need to rent a car, discuss that immediately with the representative on the phone or note it in your online application so they can verify whether your policy allows for rental car reimbursement. Ask about your deductible if you don't know it, and verify what coverages you have towards this particular loss.
  6. Provide documentation of related expenses. If you are out money for expenses already, that is information the insurance company needs to know. You may be asked to send over receipts and detailed documentation. Always keep a copy for yourself.
  7. Let them know where the vehicle is. You will be asked where your vehicle is when filing your claim. If the vehicle is drivable, let them know where the representative can view. it if necessary. If not, tell them which body shop it was towed to.
  8. Find out about the other party's claim. In most cases, the other party should be filing their claim around the same time, and will likely contact you with that information. If you don't hear from them, ask your carrier if should you file a claim with the other party's carrier, or if they will be handling that.
  9. File claim with DMV (when applicable). Some states require that you file a claim with the DMV. Terms vary on what types of accidents need to be reported, so it's imperative you check with your local DMV for applicable laws. Ask your insurance agent or adjuster as well to verify you are the one who needs to file the report. If you don't get it filed timely, you can be slapped with penalties, required to pay a fine, and even face suspension of your driver's license.
  10. Contact your homeowner's or renter's policy carrier (if applicable). If you suffered a vehicle break in and stuff is missing, it can be a good idea to find out if any of those possessions were covered under your homeowner's or renter's insurance policy. Also, you may have damage to your property from a storm that would be covered under your homeowner's policy. It's not uncommon to have fences blow down and damage a car, so you could have two separate claims pending, depending on the circumstances.
  11. Do any requested statements and phone interviews. Your insurance company may ask you to call back to take a recorded statement about the facts of the accident. The other party's carrier may ask for the same in order to start processing the claim, but you should check with your own adjuster first on whether they want you to give that insurance company a separate statement.

Once your claim has been filed, you will need to wait the specified time to hear back from the assigned claim representative. They will tell you what comes next and what the expected timeline is. If you are told a representative will call you within 24 to 48 hours and you don't hear anything back, you should call the assigned representative and leave a message asking for status.

Be Prepared

You never know when you might need to file an auto insurance claim. Follow these tips to help ensure you are prepared if the need arises.

Know Your Policy

Familiarize yourself with your policy and its terms and conditions ahead of time. When the need arises to file a claim, most people are emotional, and especially if there are injuries, there may be things you forget at the time of the loss. Some types of claims must be reported within a specific time frame, and you don't want to miss an important deadline.

Knowing what your insurance covers regarding rental cars, stolen property, etc., can be extremely helpful in ensuring you are adequately insured and covered. Also, certain states require you call the police even for minor accidents involving only property damage, so it's not worth risking a claim denial because you didn't know the local laws.

Keep Copies of Documents

Keep photos of important documents, like your vehicle registration, driver's license, etc., in multiple places, like on your phone or on a cloud-based storage. If you have a flood and your documents are destroyed, or if your car is stolen and you don't have your insurance and registration information handy to give to the police, it can cause additional delays having to get copies of everything.

Don't Ever Disclose Your Policy Limits

Never share your auto insurance limits with another party. When people find out there are high limits, it may encourage them to file a claim against you or retain an attorney in hopes of getting more money.

Variations of Claims

car insurance document

You may be filing a variety of different auto claims depending on your coverage, which can include collision (damage to your vehicle), comprehensive (theft, tree branch falling, storm damage), liability (damage and injury to other parties), medical payments (specific coverage), or uninsured motorist (when another vehicle has no insurance or the accident was a hit and run).

If you were in an accident with injuries and property damage, there is a chance that more than one adjuster could be assigned to the claim. Some adjusters only handle property damage to the vehicle while another one steps in to work on investigating and negotiating the settlement for the injury portion of the claim. If you have a specific medical payment coverage on your policy, that may even be a different adjuster.

Mobile App Benefits

If your carrier offers a mobile app, it can make both the process of filing the claim and the actual claims process much more streamlined. Companies are changing the traditional claims filing method by incorporating elements like real-time video appraisals (Esurance), while others like Allstate have QuickFoto Claim, which guides users through snapping and submitting photos of damage from their phone. With this, it can speed up the claims filing and settlement process. Esurance has noted their app can cut two to three days off the insurer's usual timeline of two to five days.

Legal Counsel

You might be wondering if you should retain an attorney if you were injured and the other party is at fault. It's a personal choice, but understand that retaining a lawyer, especially at the start of your case, is likely going to cause it to be reassigned to a claims adjuster who works exclusively with attorneys. This can delay your claim. Additionally, lawyers typically get around 30% of your settlement, though the fee can vary based on what the firm you select charges for a contingency fee.

Be Nice to Your Adjuster

While this may be an emotional event for you, claims adjusters often have hundreds of pending cases at one time. They need to remain impartial and non-emotional to do their job effectively. You are paying for the coverage, and adjusters are trained to help resolve the matter fairly and pay out any coverages owed. Cooperation and kindness can go a long way in getting your claim settled quickly and efficiently.

How to File an Auto Insurance Claim