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Filing an Auto Insurance Claim

You've just had an auto accident. Perhaps the other driver was clearly to blame, or you were responsible. It may be a minor fender bender or a more serious accident resulting in injuries or extensive damage. Regardless of the severity of the accident or who was at fault, there are a number of basic steps you'll need to follow once the commotion subsides. This can all be a complicated and stressful process. But the more you know, the smoother the process will be and the greater your chances of obtaining a satisfactory outcome.

Report the accident immediately

The first step you should take is to promptly notify your insurance company or agent that you've been in an accident. Do this as soon as possible, even if you're far from home. When you call your insurance company, you'll be asked for specific information regarding the accident. The more information you have collected at the scene, the faster your claim will likely be processed and the better your insurance company can judge how to proceed.

If the accident was minor, you may be tempted to avoid making a report because you don't want your insurance premiums to rise. However, consider the consequences of failing to report the accident. If you don't report it, the other driver may still report the incident separately to the police or to his or her insurance company, and you may be held liable. An unscrupulous driver might even claim that you left the scene of the accident and, since there is no record reflecting your side of the story, he or she might be able to make a case.

Keep in mind that your rates probably won't increase unless you caused the accident. If you live in a no-fault state, expenses related to bodily injury, including lost wages, will be paid exclusively by each party's own insurer, unless the state's threshold for filing lawsuits is equaled or exceeded.

Fill out the appropriate forms

Ask your insurance agent or the company representative about the forms or documents you need to complete in order to support your claim. Your company may require a proof-of-loss form, as well as medical and auto repair bills, a copy of the police report, and other documents relating to your claim. Supply all the materials and information your insurer requests, and do it in a timely manner.

Read your policy

No one really wants to read an auto insurance policy filled with fine print and insurance jargon. But you'll need to be aware of the specifics of your policy in the days following an accident. Knowing what your policy covers can prevent unpleasant surprises. Ideally, though, the best time to look over your policy is before you're feeling stressed in the immediate aftermath of an accident.

Keep records of your expenses and other paperwork

In some cases, your insurance company will pay the hospital, car mechanic, or other service provider directly. In other cases, you are expected to pay these expenses out of your own pocket, and the company will reimburse you for covered expenses. Keep a record of all related expenses. Potential out-of-pocket costs might include medical and hospital bills, car repair bills, rental car charges, and lost wages. Since you will no doubt need receipts in order to be reimbursed, it's wise to keep copies of these and all other documents in a safe location. In fact, you may find it very useful to keep a record or journal of all your dealings relating to the accident.

Understand the role of the insurance adjuster

Your insurance company will assign an adjuster to your case who will be in charge of investigating and making recommendations regarding the settlement of your claim. An appraiser will likely look at and photograph the damage to your car, and you may have to contact a repair shop to get a written estimate (sometimes the adjuster does this). You may receive money right away (after satisfying your deductible) or the claim may be held up, depending on how complicated the situation is. If you feel that the settlement offer is too low, you can appeal it to the insurance company. You'll have to support your case, but you may be able to get a larger settlement.

Don't forget your other insurance

Finally, don't forget that other types of insurance (e.g., health, homeowners) may cover certain losses resulting from an auto accident that are not covered by your auto insurance, depending on the type of loss and other circumstances.