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How to File an Auto Insurance Claim

So, it’s happened: you got into a car accident. Regardless of the specifics and who gets the fair share of the blame, you now have to, among many other headaches, file an auto insurance claim.

Cue the ominous music.

Submitting paperwork in an attempt to get money (or avoid having to pay any yourself) seems like a looming and dreadful hurdle to overcome. Certainly, it’s a lengthy and complicated process that requires you to tick a lot of boxes, but if you keep those boxes neatly ordered, you should have no trouble handling it.

Before we even get to the first step, here’s the golden rule that you need to keep in mind: always stop when you have a collision. Even if it becomes a hit and run and the other party flees the scene, you need to take stock of the situation and gather some information, no matter how minor the bump.

Back to our car accident scenario: you’ve just been in an accident, and you’re sitting in the driver’s seat on the side of the road, hazards on. Take a deep breath. Keep calm. Now, here’s what you do:

Step One: Check for Immediate Dangers

Before anything else, make sure there aren’t any clear emergencies. Is anyone injured or trapped? Has a vehicle caught fire or thrown dangerous debris across the road? If your car is stopped in a dangerous location (such as in the middle of a lane or an intersection), you’ll want to move it, if possible, so that it’s out of the way of traffic as well. Now, call 911. Let the dispatcher know what happened, where you are, and whether or not you need immediate medical assistance.

Step Two: Document the Damage

While you wait for the authorities to arrive, you need to take down as much information about the scene as you can. Get that phone out and take as many clear photos of the damage as you can, preferably before anything gets moved — by you, by the police, or by the other drivers. Take notes as well, and briefly summarize your take on what happened.

Do not assume that you’ll be able to recall off the top of your head: memory is a slippery thing. Get the names and numbers of any witnesses who saw the accident. Most important are the details of the other parties involved: get names, phone numbers, a description of the car, a license plate number, and the name of their insurance company and the ID of their policy.

Don’t argue with their accounts if they diverge from yours: this isn’t the time to assign blame. If you have the opportunity, you’ll want to note/obtain some additional information for later, too: a list of damaged items that may be in your car, any physical discomfort you now feel (which could turn into a more serious medical consequence later on), and a complete description of the vehicles.

Step Three: Get Your Report(s)

Once the police have arrived, follow their instructions. Only discuss the details of the incident with the authorities, and do not admit guilt. Don’t sign anything unless you’re fully aware of what you’re agreeing to. Request a copy of the official accident report from the responding officer. You may also need to file an accident report with the DMV, though the specifics of this vary from state to state.

In Texas, you must submit a crash report (Form CR-2) if the accident results in injury or death, or if the damage totals to more than $1,000. Typically, law enforcement will submit this for you, but you’ll want to make sure that they complete it, or you’ll have to do it yourself if the police don’t get involved for whatever reason.

Step Four: Call Your Insurance Company

Call your auto insurance company’s emergency claims number, either at the scene (preferably) or as soon as you’re safely out of the way. Either way, you’ll want to do it within 24 hours of the incident at the very latest. Your agent is here to walk you through this next part and do as much of the heavy lifting as they can. They’ll let you know what the next steps are and what you’ll need to send them.

Once you’ve reported the incident to your insurance agent, the company will assign a claims adjuster to your case to work on the particulars moving forward. The first thing that they’ll work with you on is determining who was at fault for the accident and what kind of claim you’ll need to file, and with whom.

Step Five: File a Claim

There are two types of claims possible here: a first-party or third-party claim. A first-party claim is one you file with your own insurance company, and a third-party claim is one you file with the other party’s provider. Which you have to submit depends on who was at fault, the type of accident, and what both party’s policy covers.

Generally, you’ll file first-party if you caused the collision, and third-party if you were the victim. Your insurance agent will walk you through it, but an ironclad rule that will always apply is that the more information you collected — from the accident, from the other parties, from the police — the easier a time you’ll have with it.

If it was a hit and run, this can get trickier, so you may have to do more hunting to get what information you can: a license plate or vehicle description from a witness or security tape, for instance. If you’re able to scrounge up enough to identify the driver, you’ll be able to submit a claim to their company.

If not, you may have to rely on your own policy to handle costs, assuming you have additional coverage beyond the bare minimum: depending on the specifics of the incident, you may be able to use your uninsured motorist, personal injury protection (PIP), or collision coverage to cover it. Keep in mind that using that last one will may very well raise your premiums, however.

Step Six: Roll With the Punches

The specifics and length of this process will vary from instance to instance, so follow your insurance company’s directions carefully. Then, take another deep breath. You’ve done it! You’ve filed your claim!

Of course, the process isn’t over. Both parties will have to let their respective claims process, and that will likely be complicated once bills for medical costs and/or vehicle repairs start coming in, which you’ll also have to submit to your agent.

The claims adjuster(s) involved will send you an assessment that outlines the associated costs stemming from the accident, which they’ll use to determine how much money they’ll pay out, either to you or the other party. You may need to counter this if you feel that the assessment is off for one reason or another, and that can lead to a back and forth negotiation until you reach an agreement.

Be Patient and Stay Confident

Still, no matter how well you document things or how cut-and-dry the situation seems to be, filing for insurance can be a drawn-out process. It is, of course, worth going through to ensure that you get the money you’re owed (or be kept from having to pay out thousands out of pocket), so stay calm, keep tabs on what’s happening, and trust in yourself and the intentions of your insurance agent. You’ll see it through, one way or another!

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