Liability car insurance is required in 49 out of 50 states, and with good reason. The economic cost of car accidents in the U.S. in 2019 was $340 billion, and the emotional and societal losses are much higher. If you are at fault in a car accident, you're responsible for the costs to repair or replace damaged property and cover the medical expenses of the other driver and passengers. Without car insurance, you could be liable for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in bodily injury and property damage.

It isn't just the other driver, though. Your vehicle may also be damaged and you may need medical attention. There are other considerations as well — will you need additional insurance to pay off your car loan? Will you need a rental car while yours is out of commission? How do you file a car insurance claim after an accident? There are a few crucial steps you can take in the minutes, days and weeks after your accident that can help your claims process go more smoothly.

Step 1: Gather Information at the Scene of the Accident

A person uses their cell phone after a car accident to document the damage

Filing an insurance claim is an easier process if you take the time to gather information at the accident scene. Exchange contact and insurance information with the other driver and call the police, so you have access to a police report. If there are serious injuries involved, you may not have the opportunity to gather all the information you need, but the police can help fill in the gaps.

Take Pictures of the Damage

Use your phone to snap photos of the damage to your vehicle and the other vehicle, along with anything else that may help your claim. Be sure to take pictures of the accident from every angle. While not required, these pictures could be helpful to your claims adjuster.

Gather Names Contact Information for Witnesses

Record the names and contact information of anyone who witnessed the accident so your claims adjuster can speak with them if necessary. Not everyone who sees an accident happen stops to help, and not every accident has immediate witnesses, but you never know when a witness may be needed, so it's best to get that information.

Take note of traffic cameras or store security cameras in the area. If you are in a residential neighborhood, you might find someone with a video surveillance camera that recorded the accident. Many people now have doorbells that take videos, for example.

Step 2: Contact Your Insurance Company

A man speaks on the phone with his insurance company while he looks at his computer

Once you are safely at home, check your insurance coverage. If you don't have a copy of it in your files, you can probably get all the details you need on your insurance company's website. You will need your policy number so you can verify your coverage and deductibles. With your policy in hand or accessible online, you can start filing your claim.

How to File a Car Insurance Claim Online

If you have a dedicated insurance agent, you can contact them directly, and they will help you file a claim with your insurance company. If you bought a policy directly from an insurance company, contact their claims department. They will have a representative who can walk you through the process of filing a claim. A claims adjuster will reach out to you once your claim has been set up in the system.

One of the benefits of signing up directly with an insurance company is that many of them have online claim systems that will allow you to file a claim at any time of the day or night through their automated system. Whether your file with an agent or online, you'll need to have the following information on hand:

  1. Your policy number.
  2. The name, license plate numbers and insurance information for the other driver.
  3. Location of the accident.
  4. Time of the accident.
  5. Whether or not the police were called.
  6. Any injuries to yourselves or others.
  7. If your car was towed, where it was towed.
  8. Information from the police, if available, regarding case numbers, names of officers, etc.

How Long Do I Have to File an Insurance Claim?

File your claim as soon as possible. It's essential to do this because every state has different laws regarding how long you have to file a claim. If you don't submit the claim and necessary documents promptly, you may not be eligible to receive any compensation for damages. Deadlines for filing a claim may vary depending on your state, your insurance company and the type of claim you're filing, so it's better not to wait.

How to File a Third-Party Car Insurance Claim

While car accidents don't happen often, they aren't exactly uncommon, either. Roughly 6 million people on average are involved in car accidents each year in the U.S. If you're involved in an accident, and someone else is at fault, you'd file a third-party claim. The easiest and best way to file a third-party claim is to contact your own insurance company regardless of who is at fault. Your claims adjuster will work with the other driver's insurance to file a third-party claim.

You can file a claim through the other person's insurance directly by calling the number on the back of their insurance card or using their insurance company's online claim form.

Step 3: Cooperate With Your Claims Adjuster

A woman looks at a message on her phone from her claims adjuster

A claims adjuster is the person your insurance company has assigned to handle your accident. The adjuster handles discussions with repair shops, other insurance companies, witnesses and any other parties involved. They will investigate your accident, review the estimates to get your vehicle repaired and get your claim settled.

You will almost always talk to your adjuster over the phone, though they may have an in-person meeting with you as well. While your adjuster wants you to be satisfied with the way your claim is handled, it's important to remember that their first responsibility is to the insurance company. They want to keep the expenses from the accident as low as possible.

It's essential to get any information your claims adjuster asks for right away. If your adjuster or agent needs information or documentation to process your claim, the faster you can get those items to them, the quicker you'll get your claim handled.

Step 4: Understand Your Claim

A couple looks at their computer as they check on their car insurance coverage

There are multiple types of claims that are filed in an accident. A representative from your insurance company can explain what kind of claim you're filing, but the types of coverage you selected when you signed up for your policy will impact what kind of claims you can file. For example, someone who elected GAP coverage could file a claim to cover the difference between the value of their car and the amount left on their car loan in the event of a total loss.

Comprehensive and Collision Claims

Comprehensive and collision coverage pays for the damages to your vehicle if you are at fault in the accident. Collision covers your car's damage in a collision with another car, while comprehensive covers pretty much everything else, including theft, weather damage and vandalism. Your insurance company will pay for expenses beyond your car insurance deductible up to your insurance limits. Comprehensive and collision coverage is optional if you don't make car payments, so you should check your policy to see if you're covered.

Liability Claim

Liability coverage pays for medical costs and property damage to the other party or parties involved in an accident if you are at fault. Some drivers have liability-only coverage, which pays solely for damages to other people and their vehicles in an at-fault accident. Medical expenses can escalate quickly, so you will want to make sure you have high enough liability coverage levels in place.

Your claims adjuster will work with the doctors, hospitals, repair shops and anyone else involved in providing services to the other driver to file claims directly through the insurance company. However, be prepared to receive a bill for any medical or property damage expenses that go beyond your liability limits if you are at fault in an accident. The level of liability coverage you choose impacts your average car insurance rates, so you will want to get multiple quotes when selecting a policy to get the lowest possible rates.

Uninsured Motorist Claim

A police officer speaks with two drivers after a car accident

In the event you're in an accident with an uninsured driver, you're not alone. According to the Insurance Information Institute, 1 in 8 drivers are uninsured. How your damages are covered may end up having to do with what state you live in. In a no-fault state, your insurance company will cover your damages, even if you're at fault and only have liability insurance. If you're not in a no-fault state, you'll need to have uninsured motorist coverage. Twenty states require it, so you probably do have it, but you should make sure you have it. You never know who is driving uninsured until they come crashing into your life.

Diminished Value Claim

If your car is damaged in an accident, it can reduce your vehicle's value, even if it's repaired. The fact that your car now has a damage history can reduce the resale value, making you less likely to recoup your car's full value if you sell it in the future.

Depending on the state you live in and the type of policy you have, you may potentially be able to file a diminished value claim. In this case, you would receive payment in the amount the value is diminished by.

Total Loss Claim

A total loss is when the cost of repairing your vehicle exceeds its value. If you have a new or high-value car, it could take quite a bit of damage to cause a total loss, whereas someone driving a 10-year-old sedan might have a total loss with a minor fender bender. If you have a total loss, you can expect the insurance company to keep your wrecked vehicle and write you a check for your car's value.

Additional Claims

There are other coverages you can purchase that can help cover your costs in the event of an accident. GAP coverage, roadside assistance and rental car coverage are just a few of the extra coverages available. Speak with your insurance agent or representative to discuss the best car insurance coverage for you and how to file a claim for these benefits.

Despite the financial benefits and legal requirements associated with car insurance, 13% of drivers in 2015 still chose not to carry insurance. Even though it might save you a few pennies to go without insurance or select minimum coverage levels, you'll find that a lot of the stress that goes along with a car accident can be alleviated if you've done your homework and purchased the right levels of coverage.

About the Author

Rachael Brennan is a writer for MoneyGeek and a professional freelance writer. She has been published on a number of websites, including Adweek, Glamour and Cracked. She has also worked in the insurance industry for more than a decade, earning her P&C license in all 50 states and her Life, Health and AD&D license in New York and the surrounding states. You can follow her on Twitter @rachaelbwriter.