How to File a Car Insurance Claim [Proven Steps for 3 Scenarios]

Experiencing a situation that results in an auto insurance claim can certainly shake your nerves. How to file a car insurance claim varies from company to company which can make your situation even more stressful. Follow our guide to learn how to file an auto insurance claim for the three most common types of car insurance claims.

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Tonya Sisler has a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of South Carolina in Journalism and has worked for 15+ years in management. She has also completed a proofreading certification and is currently a professional writer.

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Brad Larson has been in the insurance industry for more than a dozen years. He started out as a claims adjuster for a national carrier. He has since switched to the agency side of the business. Brad is licensed in all P&C lines.

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Reviewed by Brad Larsen
Licensed Auto Insurance Agent

UPDATED: Oct 29, 2020

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Experiencing a situation that results in a car insurance claim can certainly shake your nerves. Where do you start? Who do you call? What do you need to remember? There may be many questions like these bombarding your brain.

The good news is that filing a claim is not difficult. The reason you have insurance (besides the fact that it’s required) is so you can file a claim and have financial protection.

To file a claim, you must have insurance! If you need insurance, or if you have insurance and haven’t compared rates for a few months, this is the perfect time to do a free comparison search and find the insurer that’s right for you. Just enter your zip code above to get started.

There are different answers to the question, “How do I file a car insurance claim?” depending on how your car was damaged in the first place. Were you the victim in an accident? Did you cause an accident? Did a tree fall on your vehicle?

We’ll examine each of these scenarios below.

Scenario #1 – A Collision Caused by another Party

Depending on which state you live in, an at-fault accident will be dealt with in different ways.

In a tort state, the party that is over 50 percent responsible for the accident will be required to pay for the damages. In most no-fault states, the property damage must be paid for by the party at fault but injuries are covered by each party’s own insurance coverage.

No-Fault States

“No-fault” doesn’t imply that accidents are no one’s fault. In most cases, the term “no-fault” refers to how bodily injury claims will be handled.

In order to eliminate excessive lawsuits, some states implemented no-fault laws. In a no-fault state, you must carry personal injury protection (PIP) and your own insurer will pay your medical costs.

If your injuries or your costs are excessive, the option to sue the other party for damages is granted.

Some states have a verbal threshold for suing for things such as death or dismemberment, while other states have a monetary threshold which allows you to sue when the medical costs cross a certain dollar amount.

Verbal Threshold No-Fault States

  • Florida
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey*
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania*

Monetary Threshold No-Fault States

  • Hawaii
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky*
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • North Dakota
  • Utah

*Choice – No-fault laws allow motorists to reject the threshold and sue for injuries sustained in a car accident.

Michigan takes standard no-fault insurance to the next step. While typical no-fault coverage concerns bodily injury only, and the at-fault party must still pay for property damage, Michigan requires that each party pay for their own damages both bodily injury and property damage related.

In the rest of the no-fault states, the offending party is responsible to pay for property damage of the other party.

When you have been in an accident which is not your fault, make sure to follow these steps.

Step 1 – Call the Police

Following a car accident where any kind of damage exists, the police should be called. Each state has a different threshold for the necessity of calling the police, but cars cost a lot to fix, and even a hairline crack in the bumper can cost over $1000. If in doubt, call the police.

Some insurance companies will refuse to pay a property damage claim if the police did not issue a ticket. Even if the accident has an obvious offending party, without the ticket, the insurance company sometimes not recognize fault without a ticket.

That being said, every insurance company handles things differently and a ticket issued to the offending party won’t guarantee their insurance provider will agree to pay claims, but it will help.

Step 2 – Collect Information

Exchange information with the offending party in the accident. You will need to get the following information from the other party:

  • Driver’s license number
  • Names and contact information for the driver and passengers
  • Insurance policy number

Also, note the location of the accident and gather contact information from any eyewitnesses.

Step 3 – Contact Insurance Company

Contact your insurance company. Even if you are not at fault, your company will work for you to collect damages from the offending party’s insurer.

You have the option to not inform your insurer if you are sure you are not in any way at fault and you have suffered no injuries, but going that route is risky because the offending party may not have been truthful about their insurance coverage, and you may have accident-related injuries that appear later.

You are certainly allowed to contact the other insurance company directly and find out what information they need, but the best step you can take is to contact your own insurance provider even when not at fault.

The Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association (RMIIA) offers some good advice and reasoning,

Phone your insurance agent or a local company representative. Do it as soon as possible even if you’re far from home and even if someone else caused the accident.

Ask your agent how to proceed and what forms or documents will be needed to support your claim. Your company may require a “proof of loss” form, as well as documents relating to your claim, such as medical and auto repair bills and a copy of the police report.

Being made aware right away of what information your insurance company requires can help you not miss collecting vital information before leaving the accident scene.

In a no-fault state, your insurance company will pay your medical bills up to the allowed amount on your PIP coverage, and, except in Michigan, will deal with the other insurance company to collect damages.

Keep in mind that if you accept money from the offending party directly, you forfeit your right to file a claim. In a worst-case scenario, your car may look fine, the other party may offer you a substantial amount of cash to not file a claim.

You accept the cash and later it is determined that the frame of your car is bent and undrivable and the substantial amount of cash doesn’t come near to the cost of purchasing a replacement vehicle. You aren’t left with any recourse once you accept payment.

Similarly, once you accept an insurance settlement, it’s a done deal. If you’re not happy with the settlement offer, don’t accept the settlement payment.

Tort States

The other 38 states that aren’t listed in the previous section are governed by “tort” laws. Tort is the opposite of no-fault. The offending party in a tort state is required to pay for property damage and personal injuries caused by an accident.

The steps to take following an accident in a tort state are exactly the same as in a no-fault state. The only difference is that your insurer will go after the other party’s insurance for your injury-related expenses instead of paying them themselves.

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Scenario #2 – A Collision Caused by You

When you know you caused an accident, you’ll probably experience a sinking feeling knowing that you caused yourself and someone else damages, and knowing that your insurance premiums will probably be raised.

Even if you’re sure it was your fault, RMIIA recommends not admitting fault. This recommendation doesn’t imply that you should lie to the other party, police officer, or your insurer, it is simply to protect you since you may be wrong assuming it was your fault.

The first steps to follow after an accident that was your fault, are the same as the steps to follow after any accident.

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Step 1 – Contact the Police

Contact the police. They can help determine fault and give a realistic report of the accident. Their report can help protect you if the other party claims more damage than actually happened.

Step 2 – Collect Information

Gather insurance information from the other party:

  • Driver’s license number
  • Names and contact numbers of anyone else in the vehicle, and
  • Contact information from eyewitnesses

Step 3 – Contact Insurance Company

Contact your insurance company. Every insurance company handles claims a little bit differently, and by contacting yours, you can be informed of exactly what your next steps should be.

Contacting your insurer immediately after the crash will allow you to get the information you need before everyone leaves the scene of the accident.

Basic Coverage

If you’re carrying the required car insurance in your state and you are deemed at-fault in an accident, your insurance company will pay for the damages of the other party.

If you live in a no-fault state, the other party’s insurance provider will pay for their initial injury costs. However, if the injuries are severe, you may face a lawsuit for the additional expenses and pain and suffering.

In a tort state, you will be liable for all injury costs suffered by the other party.

Considering that the minimum level of bodily injury liability required by most states is between $20,000 and $30,000 and that a significant injury could require surgery, rehabilitation, and therapy, carrying the minimum required coverage will not provide the financial protection you need.

Before you’re faced with a situation in which you wish you had a higher level of coverage, consider calling your insurance agent and increasing your liability limits.

Basic car insurance coverage required by each state will help you pay for liabilities to the other party suffering damages but will do nothing to help you recoup your property damage losses and injury costs.

Collision Coverage

Collision insurance is necessary to cover damages to your own property. If you do not have collision coverage and you caused the accident, you will have to repair or replace your vehicle with money out of pocket.

If you do carry collision coverage, you will have to pay your deductible and then your insurer will cover the rest of the costs.

Even though collision coverage will offer protection you’ll be very thankful for if you wreck your car in a crash you caused, it’s not a cost-effective coverage for every situation.

If you lease a vehicle or have a loan, you’ll be required to carry collision coverage. If you own your car, you can decide. The general recommendation is that if the cost for collision and comprehensive (reviewed below) annually is over 10 percent of your vehicle’s value, you should forego the coverage.

Scenario #3 – Vehicle Damage Not from a Collision

There are many scenarios in which you could consider filing a claim for damage that was not the result of an accident (see image below).

  • Weather-related incidents – Hail, fallen tree limbs and flooding are all weather-related events that could cause damage to your vehicle.
  • Vandalism – Someone could purposefully damage your vehicle bringing significant repair costs.
  • Hitting an animal – Even though this is technically a “collision,” it’s covered under the comprehensive part of insurance.

These steps will vary depending on the type of incident:

#1 – Weather Claim

  • Step 1 – Contact emergency service depending on the scenario. If you are injured or if you’re car is pinned down, you’ll need assistance. Take safety seriously.
  • Step 2 – Depending on the situation you may need to move your car to a safe place but only do so if you can safely to avoid additional danger.
  • Step 3 – Document the scene when able to safely. Make note of the date, time, conditions; take pictures of the car and damage. It’s better to have too much information than too little.
  • Step 4 – Contact your insurance company promptly. This ensures you don’t run into issues making the claim down the road.

#2 – Vandalism

  • Step 1 – Call the police so you have an official police report of the incident.
  • Step 2 – Document the scene. Make note of the date, time, conditions; take pictures of the car and damage.
  • Step 3 – Contact your insurance company and provide the details of what’s happened.

#3 – Hitting an Animal

  • Step 1 – Contact emergency service and do not approach the animal.
  • Step 2 – Move your car to a safe place when you can safely do so to avoid additional danger.
  • Step 3 – Document the scene only when safe. Make note of the date, time, conditions; take pictures of the car and damage.
  • Step 4 – Contact your insurance company promptly, so that they can provide with you further steps and review your coverage for things like roadside assistance or rental coverage.

Comprehensive Coverage Explained

While collision coverage covers your damage expenses following an accident, comprehensive coverage pays for non-collision related vehicle damage.

As mentioned previously, basic coverage — the car insurance coverage required where you live — will only pay for expenses you’re liable for when you cause an accident. Comprehensive coverage is the alternative and will also cover your own vehicle after an accident or other damage.

When your car has been damaged and you are considering filing a claim, first make sure you carry the proper coverage. If you’ve experienced a loss caused by an event not related to a collision and you have comprehensive car insurance coverage, you will have the option to file a claim.

Comprehensive and collision coverage usually carry a deductible. When you make a claim, your insurance company will determine if your claim is valid, and if it is, they will pay for the damages except for the amount of your deductible which you will have to pay.

While filing an at-fault liability claim or collision claim will likely cause your monthly auto insurance premium to rise drastically, filing a comprehensive claim typically has little impact on your insurance premiums.

So, how do you file a claim for comprehensive damages?

Contact your insurance provider. They will inform you of the steps you need to take and the information you need to gather. Usually, they will ask for information such as:

  • The date of the incident
  • A description of the damage
  • An estimate from a repair shop

General Considerations

Once you have contacted your insurance company, they will instruct you on what information they need. Here are some of the things you can expect following your initial contact with the insurer:

  • A phone call from an insurance representative asking for certain details related to the accident.
  • A request for the police report if there is one. You will have to contact the law enforcement agency that dealt with your situation and request the report.
  • An adjuster’s visit to validate damage in person
  • A request for an estimate. Often the repair shop will directly communicate with the insurer over this issue. Your insurance company may have preferred shops that they recommend, but you have the right to choose your own repair shop.

You will need to keep a record of all crash-related expenses and losses, including:

  • Hospital bills
  • Chiropractic costs
  • Lost wages
  • Housekeeping costs if unable to perform those duties as a result of the crash

Download FREE Tracking Sheet Now

During any kind of vehicle altercation, your stress level will be high, so we’ve created a FREE workbook to make tracking the expenses listed above easily.

Click here (or the screenshot above) then go to “File” > “Download As” > Choose your preferred format and you’ll be ready to stay organized.

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Statute of Limitations

Each state legislates their own laws concerning insurance and the statues of limitations. There is a legal time limit to file claims. Insurance companies can also enforce their own time limits on filing claims.

To be on the safe side, you should contact your insurance company as soon as possible following a collision. The state statutes of limitations for personal injury and property damage claims are usually two to three years, but you can find the specific limit in your state below.

State Personal Injury Property Damage
Alabama 2 years 2 years
Alaska 2 years 6 years
Arizona 2 years 2 years
Arkansas 3 years 3 years
California 2 years 3 years
Colorado 3 years 3 years
Connecticut 2 years 3 years
Delaware 2 years 2 years
Florida 4 years 4 years
Georgia 2 years 4 years
Hawaii 2 years 2 years
Idaho 2 years 3 years
Illinois 5 years 2 years
Indiana 2 years 2 years
Iowa 2 years 5 years
Kansas 1 year 2 years
Kentucky 1 year 2 years
Louisiana 1 year 1 year
Maine 6 years 6 years
Maryland 3 years 3 years
Massachusetts 3 years 3 years
Michigan 3 years 3 years
Minnesota 2 years 6 years
Mississippi 3 years 3 years
Missouri 5 years 5 years
Montana 3 years 2 years
Nebraska 4 years 4 years
Nevada 2 years 3 years
New Hampshire 3 years 3 years
New Jersey 2 years 6 years
New Mexico 3 years 4 years
New York 3 years 3 years
North Carolina 3 years 3 years
North Dakota 6 years 6 years
Ohio 2 years 2 years
Oklahoma 2 years 2 years
Oregon 2 years 6 years
Pennsylvania 2 years 2 years
Rhode Island 3 years 10 years
South Carolina 3 years 3 years
South Dakota 3 years 6 years
Tennessee 1 year 3 years
Texas 2 years 2 years
Utah 4 years 3 years
Vermont 3 years 3 years
Virginia 2 years 5 years
Washington 3 years 3 years
Washington D.C. 3 years 3 years
West Virginia 2 years 2 years
Wisconsin 3 years 3 years
Wyoming 4 years 4 years

One final consideration has been mentioned before, but that is to not accept a settlement from insurance until you are satisfied with it, or until you have been legally advised by your attorney that the offer should be taken.

To accept a settlement, you must sign that you will not pursue future litigation, so you want to be sure the settlement is fair because you will have no future recourse.

Car insurance companies deal with every type of person and have designed their claims process to be accessible to the common individual. You just need to contact the insurance company and then follow their directions. Don’t overthink it.

If you’re not satisfied with how your insurance company has dealt with you regarding a claim, this is a good time to compare other insurance companies and review customer satisfaction surveys. You can get started with a quote comparison right here by entering your zip code below.

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