How to File An Auto Insurance Claim

After a car accident, the last thing you want to deal with is an insurance company. Here's how to file a claim without causing a headache.
By Zach Bowman, Contributing Editor
Every state requires drivers to carry some sort of auto insurance but few people know how to use their policies effectively in a panic, post-accident situation.

For those who have never suffered through a car accident, it's a jarring experience. Loud noises, violent shaking, enduring bad memories and more than a little pain are all integral ingredients in this recipe for disaster. When the air bag dust settles, the proper way to file an auto insurance claim is probably the last thing on your mind.

Many states require drivers to contact the police if the damage to your vehicle is more than $200. That's about the cost of a turn signal lens on most new vehicles, so it doesn't take much to cross that threshold.

Aside from being the law, filing a police report will help the insurance companies sort out who is at fault in the accident. That doesn't mean your insurance company will accept the officer's word as gospel, but it does help to have an unbiased, unemotional opinion on the scene.

Jackie Johnson, a former team manager for claims at State Farm, said that the biggest cause of grief during the filing process is a policy holder failing to get all of the necessary information.

"Everybody is pretty frantic," she said. "People get very angry and feel like they can't talk to the other driver. Remember, it's just an accident and nobody meant for it to happen. Otherwise, you may not get all the information you need."

First, swap insurance cards with the other driver. Make sure you get the insurance company's name, the policy number, the vehicle's VIN (or vehicle identification number), the insurance agent's name, the company's phone number and basically anything and everything else on the card. It's always better to have more information than you need.

Next, look for information on the other vehicle. It's important to copy down the car's license plate number, make, model and color. Do your best to write down exactly where the damage is and the other car's placement at the time of the wreck. If you can, take as many pictures as possible.

Johnson said it is also important to make sure that the car's VIN is the same as the one on the insurance card. You may have noticed a little metal tag in the corner of your dash under your windshield. That's your vehicle's fingerprint, completely unique to that ride, and making sure it matches the other driver's documentation will ensure there's no funny business.

After gathering all of your research, call your insurance company first, even if the accident wasn't your fault.

"We depend on our policy holder for most of the claim information," Johnson said.

More than likely, your insurance agent or someone else in the company will take a claim report from you. It's important to remember as much detail as you can about the event, including the time of day, where your car was, where the other driver was located, the exact location of the accident and the kind of damage to both vehicles.

After you speak with your insurance company, call the other driver's company. You'll probably feel like a parrot spouting off the same information to whomever's on the other end of the phone, but it's important to be accurate and precise. The more the companies know, the more likely they are to come to the right conclusion about who's at fault.

When you speak with the other driver's insurance, make sure you write down the claim number and the full name of whomever you speak to. You may need this information again if you have to call the company back.

Within the next day or so, the insurance companies will likely assess the damage to your car, and depending on what kind of insurance you have and whether or not you were at fault, write you a check for the damage. If you don't hear from anyone regarding the accident, don't hesitate to pick up the phone and call. After all, this is a service you've been paying your entire driving life. Get your money's worth.

Information To Get From The Other Driver After An Accident
Policy number
Agent name
Company phone number
Driver's license number
License plate number
Year, make, model of car
Location and severity of damage
Exact location, date and time of accident

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