How to File a Car Insurance Claim: Steps, Timing, and Costs to Expect


Whose insurance company to contact, what info to provide, and what to expect in terms of time and money

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You get in an accident or your car is pummeled with hail. You need to figure out how to get your car fixed and what to do next. Filing a car insurance claim can be a long and confusing process. What should you document, whose insurance company should you contact, and how much might your claim affect your rates – these are just a few of the countless questions we get about filing a car insurance claim. So let’s break it down for ya.

First, when should you file a claim?

You might be surprised to learn that there is some gray area in terms of when you should and should not file a car insurance claim. Here are the occasions you definitely should file a claim:

  • When someone is injured:
    • Medical costs can add up to far higher amounts than property damage claims, and the impact isn’t always immediately apparent. If you’re found at fault in an accident and are unable to pay for the damages, you risk being sued without the backing of your insurance company.
    • (Pro shouldn’t-need-to-be-a-tip tip: call 911 if anyone is injured in car accident – drivers, passengers, and pedestrians, included!)
  • Uncertain scenarios:
    • When it’s not entirely clear who is at fault in an accident, an insurance company’s (or multiple companies’) claims department will determine who is liable. They’re the experts – let them sort it out.
  • “Total loss” scenarios or when you cannot afford to pay for the damages:
    • A general rule of thumb with insurance claims is that if you’re able to pay for the damages out of pocket, you should consider doing so to avoid filing a claim and risking higher insurance rates. However, if your vehicle is totaled – like if a flood or bad car accident causes irreparable damage – you should file a claim with your insurance company to mediate the financial loss of your vehicle.

car crash on street

How to file a claim for an injury

As mentioned previously, if you’re in an accident where someone is hurt, it’s better to file a claim than try to pay out of pocket for any damages.

For most auto insurance policies, the only time you would file a bodily injury claim is when you are not at fault in an accident, meaning the other person caused you to sustain injuries requiring medical attention. In this case, you would be dealing with their insurance company to receive compensation rather than your own. (The only exception is if the other driver is uninsured, which is a critical reason you need uninsured motorist coverage!)

What to expect:

  1. Exchange information after an accident so you are prepared to call the other driver’s insurance company. Make sure you get the following:
  • Name of all the drivers involved in the accident
  • Address and phone number of drivers involved
  • Year, make, model, and license plates of all vehicles involved in the accident
  • Insurance policy numbers
  • Photo of the accident scene from all sides and a photo of the other driver’(s) license, if possible
  1. You’ll be directed to the insurance company’s claims department, and you will ultimately be assigned a claims adjustor who will work with you through the entire reimbursement and recovery process.
  2. For a bodily injury claim, it’s important to have all the proper documentation:
  • Date of your injury
  • Description of the accident
  • Medical bills and receipts (duplicated and document it all – however small!)
  • All physician reports, including prognosis, length of treatment, and potential for further issues in the future
  • Any prescribed medication (this can include additional appointments and equipment like casts and crutches)
  • Outline of any lasting damages such as scarring, disability, or pain

Pro Tip:

Bear in mind, the goal of the other company’s claims adjustor is to mitigate damages for their insurance company (that is, they often want to pay as little as possible). So, while you should be honest with them regarding the incident and resultant injuries, be aware of them potentially trying to downplay your grievances.

file a claim

How to file a claim for property damage

If the other driver is clearly at fault in an accident you’re involved in, you’ll start by contacting the at-fault driver’s insurance company to begin the claims process. Again, the only people who can determine fault in an accident are the insurance companies. So, if it’s not cut and dry, you’ll want to get your insurance company involved.

If you are at fault in an accident and want to file a claim with your own insurance company, you’ll need to make sure you have comprehensive and collision coverages (together often called “full coverage”), and that you are willing to pay your deductible and risk a premium increase upon filing a claim.

Whether it’s your company or the other driver’s, the company will assign your claim to a claims adjuster who will investigate the accident, get the damaged vehicle(s) repaired, and overall, resolve the claim.

What to expect:

  1. The claims adjustor will investigate the accident. Typically, this includes:
  • Interviewing you regarding the accident
  • Requesting official documentation such as medical or police reports, if applicable
  • Physical inspection of the vehicle to evaluate the damage
  • Compiling a report with the estimated cost of repair
  1. You’ll get your car repaired. The insurance company might suggest places for your to get your vehicle repaired; however, note that these are only suggestions. You are not required to use the mechanic your insurance company recommends, and in fact you may find better service elsewhere. A mechanic will review the damages to your vehicle and the cost and time estimate for the repairs. Usually, your insurance company will issue a claim check directly to the repair facility upon service completion. If, however, your vehicle is paid off and you’d prefer to accept the cash rather than have a fully repaired vehicle, you can request the check be given to you.

The claims timeline: what to expect

The timeline and the monetary consequences of filing a claim really depend on the severity of the claim.

First, it could take a while. If it’s easy for law enforcement and insurance companies to determine fault and if there are only superficial damages to the vehicles, the claims process should be pretty straightforward. However, if the claim involves injuries or a longer arbitration process to determine fault, it could be quite lengthy.

As for cost, what you pay of course depends on whether you’re at fault and your deductible. Outside of that, though, you may also incur increases to your insurance premium after filing a claim. For example, according to The Zebra’s own data, the national average annual premium would increase more than $600 after an at-fault accident claim. Moreover, this rate increase would apply to your policy for three years after the accident.

If you were found not at-fault for the accident, it is unlikely (but not impossible) for your rate to be affected. Some insurance companies see a single accident as indicative of you being more likely to be involved in another accident in the future and thus charge you an increase. Rest assured, however, that practice is unusual and several states even consider it illegal. Still, for this reason and to ensure you always have the right coverage for your needs and the best rate for your driving record, we encourage you to shop around for car insurance every six months.