How To File a Car Insurance Claim

Steps To Take When Filing a Claim With Your Car Insurance Company

Help filing your car insurance claim after an accident
••• Hero Images / Getty Images

Picture this: You’re driving down the street one afternoon and another car rear-ends you at a red light. Should you file a car insurance claim? And if so, how does the process work?

The regulations governing auto insurance companies vary by state, so the reporting and claims process can vary. While the exact steps may differ, here’s an overview of what you need to know to file a claim with a car insurance company. 

Calling 911, Towing, and More Before Filing a Claim

First things first: If someone has been hurt or you’re in a potentially dangerous situation, call 911 to get help as soon as possible. If in a collision, stop at the scene of the accident or as close as possible without endangering yourself or other drivers. Don’t admit responsibility or guilt for a crash either—that’s what the auto claims process is for. 

Next, it may be wise to call law enforcement if you haven’t already, in case a police report must be filed. In some cities, counties, and states, you’ll call 911 or the police only for accidents where there is significant property damage, injury, or death. In some areas, police will respond to all accidents—even fender benders. In other areas, a police non-emergency number may accept accident reports.

If you need your vehicle towed, you may have two options.

File a Tow Claim Immediately

Your car insurer may be able to arrange a tow, depending on your circumstances. If you were in an accident, your insurer might help you access towing to and from repair facilities or a salvage yard. The costs may be settled later as part of the accident claims process. In other situations, if you have an add-on coverage type called “roadside assistance,” you may be able to essentially file a claim on the spot, avoiding later paperwork and reimbursement.

Your roadside assistance tow may come with limits, such as your car can only be towed somewhere within 15 miles of the accident or to the nearest repair shop beyond that distance. Be sure to check your car insurance policy and company’s rules around towing.

Get Reimbursed After Paying Upfront

If you need to call a towing company yourself or the police help tow your vehicle, save receipts for later potential reimbursement as part of the overall car insurance claims process or a roadside assistance claim. You may also be reimbursed for the towing and storage of your car if you were in an accident and the other party was determined to be at fault. Reimbursement may also be possible if you have towing coverage under your car’s warranty, your credit card company, or another service provider.

When To File a Car Insurance Claim

In general, you’ll want to file a car insurance claim if someone (including you) was injured; you caused damage to someone else, their vehicle, or their property; or you damaged the property of a city or business.

Here are a few more specific circumstances that might lead to you filing a claim with your auto insurance company: 

  • You’re in an accident with another driver, and you’re not sure who is at fault
  • Another driver rear-ends you 
  • A tree falls on your car 
  • Rocks crack your windshield
  • You back into someone else’s garage—which dents your car and the garage door
  • Your vehicle or catalytic converter is stolen 

Review your policy to understand your coverage and deductible (the portion you pay before insurance kicks in). You may also still want to discuss the case with your insurer to protect yourself.

When filing a car insurance claim, write down the claim number and make sure it’s assigned to you. This will allow you to keep track of the claim via phone, online, or the mobile app, to see its progress.

In some situations, you can file a claim with your own company or with the other driver’s company.

File a Claim With Your Own Company

If you file a claim with your own car insurance company, it will manage your claim from repairs to reimbursement. Your insurer might help cover car repair or medical bills, although a deductible may be required first. If you’ve been in an accident, your insurer may prefer that you open a claim with them to investigate the situation and protect yourself if the other party says you’re at fault.

If you don’t have certain coverage in your policy, such as collision or comprehensive, you may not be able to make a claim with your insurance. However, in “no-fault” insurance states, you will likely file a claim with your own auto insurance company for any medical bills, no matter who’s at fault. 

If you make a claim for an accident, and the other party is at fault, your insurer will pay for your car repairs (after you pay the deductible). Then, your insurer will likely negotiate with the other insurance company to get reimbursed for the repairs. However, reimbursement for all or a portion of your deductible depends on state law, your insurance company policy, and the specifics of the accident.

You can report an incident to your insurance company but not file a claim if you want to make the repairs yourself. If you don’t want to repair the vehicle and you own it (it’s not leased and you don’t have a car loan), you also don’t need to file a claim. You may still want to inform your insurer of the accident, just in case the other driver denies responsibility or doesn’t have any or enough insurance to cover your costs.

File a Claim With Another Driver’s Company

If you’re confident that you aren’t at fault, you could also have the option of filing what’s called a “third-party” claim with the other driver’s insurance company. When you make a claim against the other driver’s policy, you will not pay a deductible. The other driver’s company will send an adjuster to investigate the damages and claim and make a settlement offer. If you disagree with the offer, you can file a claim with your own company and let the insurers work out the responsibility and final payment. 

In some states, insurers of the at-fault individual must reimburse you for a rental car during the time it takes to repair your vehicle. If you don’t have rental car insurance, this might be a good reason to make a claim with the other driver’s policy.

What Do You Need To File a Claim With an Auto Insurance Company?

You can often start a car insurance claim online, over the phone, or with the insurance company’s mobile app. To file a claim for a minor accident with no injuries, you may be able to use a form on the insurer’s website, too. 

The information required varies by insurer and situation. However, in most cases, one or both insurance companies need to negotiate and agree upon who is legally at fault for the accident, whether the car’s damages and your injuries stem from the accident or something else, and the total cost of physical injury and auto repairs.

Typically, the insurer or the adjuster will:

  • Request your policy number, zip code, date of birth, or other identifying information
  • The other driver’s car insurance and contact information, if necessary
  • Take a written or recorded statement of your version of events
  • Interview witnesses, if possible 
  • Collect documentation you gathered at the scene of the accident or right after, such as driver or witness contact information, copies of police reports, photos, or receipts

What Happens After the Car Insurance Claim Is Filed?

Once the claim is filed and in progress, there are a few more steps you can take to ensure the entire accident is resolved without difficulty.

File a Police Report

In most cases, it’s best to file a police report whenever there have been injuries, significant losses, or your car was vandalized or stolen. You might also need to file an accident report with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) or another entity, either separately or in addition to the police report. This documentation will help you with your insurance claim. You may have only 72 hours to file a report or up to 10 days. If injuries or death occurred or property damages are above a specific limit (say, $1,000 to $2,500 or more), you may also be required to file a report with the DMV or police department.

In some states, such as New York, your license can be suspended if you don’t report an accident that requires a police report.

Work With the Insurance Adjuster

The adjuster is like the insurance company’s investigator of the accident. They inspect your car, analyze police reports, interview witnesses, gather medical bills and damage estimates, and more. After the adjuster has collected details, they will make an estimated offer for claim settlement. You can ask the adjuster to explain the proposal. If you think repair or medical expenses will be more than the offer, you can attempt to negotiate.

Here are a few tips for working with the adjuster: 

  • Try to be there when the adjuster visits 
  • Don’t make any permanent repairs until the adjuster has finished inspecting the damage
  • Save any receipts for any temporary repairs you had to make immediately 
  • Note the date, time, and who you spoke with, their title, and what you discussed 

Get a Repair Estimate and Then Schedule the Repairs 

Depending on the situation, you may be asked to provide repair estimates from one or several shops. You can choose the shop or use the shop the insurer suggests. If the car damage is minor, the insurance company may not send an adjuster and instead ask you to get estimates for repairing the damage. The insurance company will then send you a claim settlement, and the amount you receive will depend on your policy’s coverage, any determined fault, and state law.

Insurance companies often recommend a contracted repair shop, much like an in-network doctor with an insurance plan. If you choose to go out of network, you can send estimates to the responsible insurer. Still, if the adjuster disagrees with the estimate, you may need to pay the difference out of pocket or work to negotiate an agreed-upon amount with an appraisal process.  

Finally, you’ll receive your claim settlement. The insurer will either pay the repair shop directly or send you a check to reimburse you for the cost of your repairs. Hopefully, your claims process is straightforward without too many twists and turns. But there may be some final hiccups to negotiate, such as additional repair costs due to hidden damage.

If your car’s repairs exceed a specific limit (in some states), or are more than the car’s value, the vehicle could be considered totaled. In that case, you’ll be sent a check for the car’s actual value, or what it would be worth on the market today—not what you paid for it.  

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How long after a car accident can you file a claim?

The time you have to file a claim varies by state, insurer, and what type of claim you need to file. Some states have limits on how long you have to wrap up any claim settlement or start a lawsuit. For example, in Illinois, you have two years from the accident date to conclude a claim involving bodily injury and five years from the accident date for property damage.

When should you not file a car insurance claim?

You might not file a claim if you only caused damage to your property or car, and you’d instead either not fix your car or plan to pay for repairs yourself. If your deductible is more than your damage, you might also not file a claim. 

How long does it take to settle a car insurance claim?

The time it takes from filing to final payment depends upon your circumstances, the insurance company’s situation and investigation, and any negotiations. Some straightforward claims may take just a few hours, while others could take weeks or months. 

How do I file a bad faith claim against an insurance company?

You may be able to file a complaint with your state’s department of insurance or insurance commissioner if you feel the insurer may be violating your contract or state law. While actions state regulators can take are often limited, involvement could lead to refunds, additional claim payments, and other beneficial actions. You can also consult with a lawyer.