When and How to File a Car Insurance Claim [Calculator]

Should you submit an insurance claim after a crash? Find out with our claims calculator.

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Ross Martin

Insurance Writer

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  • 4+ years in the Insurance Industry

Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

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Kristine Lee

Insurance Analyst

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  • 4+ years of Experience in the Insurance Industry

Kristine is a licensed insurance agent who joined The Zebra in 2019 as an in-house content researcher and writer. Before joining The Zebra, she was a…

Calculator: Should I file an auto insurance claim?

If you've had an accident or discovered that your vehicle was hit by another car, you'll need to decide whether or not to file an insurance claim. There are many cases where filing a claim is simply unavoidable — either the damage is too great or you don't want to risk being scammed. However, some types of damage make filing a claim less cut-and-dry.

Using The Zebra’s State of Auto Insurance report, we built an insurance claim calculator to help determine if you should file an insurance claim through your provider or pay for damages out of pocket. Try it out below. 

The calculator above looks at the parameters of your accident and details of your insurance coverage, and provides a comparison of the out-of-pocket expenses vs. insurance rate increases. Upon completion, you’ll receive our recommendation on how to move forward. Our recommendation is only guidance and shouldn’t substitute for advice from your insurer.

The calculator is intended to show you an estimate of how much you may pay in insurance premiums if any of the selected events occur. Although the calculator is based on actual premiums for insurance sold in your area, there are several reasons why your calculator results may not match your actual premiums that pertain to further specifics not captured in the calculation. Please contact your carrier if you are unsure if you should file a claim.

Note: completing this calculator will not impact your rates as we are not providing your results to carriers.


What is a car insurance claim?

A car insurance claim is a report you file after a collision with another vehicle or another incident that results in damage to your vehicle. A claim usually results in a payment from your car insurance company. This payout happens only after you meet your deductible.

Key takeaways

  • Car insurance claims can cause your insurance rates to increase for up to three years
  • Claims may take anywhere from weeks to several months to be processed
  • Most insurers now provide apps to help speed up the claims process

How to file a car insurance claim

Filing an auto insurance claim is a relatively straightforward process. The Insurance Information Institute[1] recommends contacting your insurance company immediately following a covered accident (or consulting your insurer's mobile app for more information). Your insurance company may provide incident-specific instructions, but the typical steps to file an auto insurance claim will be similar to the below.

Inform your insurance company
Inform your insurance company

Letting your insurance company know about the accident can help get the claim started. Most often this is done by calling your insurer at the scene of the accident. However, many major insurers now offer mobile apps that can speed up the process. In many cases, you can upload images of any damage immediately. 

Gather documents and file a proof of claim report
Gather documents and file a proof of claim report

If you filed a police report, be sure to keep a copy on hand. Supply any and all forms and information your car insurance company requests. 

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Make the claim in a timely manner

Confirm any document filing due dates and be sure to submit your forms on time. You'll need to make sure that all of your documents are submitted within the timeframe that your company requires.

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Ask about rental car reimbursement

While your vehicle is being repaired, see if your insurance company provides any sort of rental car reimbursement. This can help you to carry on with your life while repairs are being made. Some companies may offer reimbursement for ridesharing or public transit travel in lieu of rental car coverage. Keep in mind that this might also be an extra coverage option that could be smart to add.


Should I get an estimate before filing a claim?

If your vehicle was the only one to sustain damage — meaning that no other parties were involved — it's a good idea to get an estimate before making a claim. If the cost of repairs is small enough to comfortably pay out-of-pocket, it makes more sense to cover the expense yourself.

Remember that a car insurance claim stays on your record for at least three years, meaning that you will not only be paying your deductible to have your vehicle repaired. You will also see a rate hike for that duration as well. If the cost of repairs would be cheaper than paying your deductible and incurring the increased costs added to your insurance premiums, avoid filing a claim.

However, if the damage done is clearly severe enough to warrant a claim — or if other parties were involved — you may forego this step. Once you begin the claims process, it's likely that a claims adjuster will provide a rough estimate. Your insurance company may also direct you to a local repair shop for an estimate before the claim is paid out

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Zebra Tip: Don't admit fault


It's important not to admit guilt in the immediate aftermath of an accident with another driver, especially if fault is not clear. First and foremost, check that everyone is alright. Afterward, you may begin exchanging information and notifying the police. The natural urge to apologize can be strong, but this should be avoided, as even a simple "sorry" might be construed as an admission of guilt in some instances. Overall, it's best to remain calm and let the insurance companies determine fault through the process of subrogation.


Three scenarios in which you should file a car insurance claim

While at times it might work in your favor not to involve your car insurance company after a crash, there are times when you should always file a claim:

1. If anyone is injured

If you, passengers in your vehicle, anyone in another vehicle, or any pedestrians are injured in a crash, you need to file a claim — especially if there’s a chance you’ll be found at fault. Medical expenses can add up, and failing to file a claim can leave you open to litigation. If you wait to get sued before contacting your insurance company to file a claim, your claims representative could deny the claim altogether.

 

2. If fault is unclear in the collision

If you’re involved in a crash that results in property damage or injury, and the fault is in dispute, you’ll need to file a claim so that your insurance provider can represent you. Insurance companies deal with insurance companies, and yours will need to work with the other party's insurer to assign responsibility and arrange payouts.

wrecked car

3. If your vehicle is deemed a significant or total loss

If the value of damage exceeds your reasonable ability to cover the loss, file a claim through your collision coverage or your property damage coverage through your liability insurance.

If you're unsure of whether to file an insurance claim, follow our step-by-step guide:

  • Get an estimate at a local mechanic for the repairs.
  • Consult The Zebra's State of Insurance report to see how much an at-fault collision would raise your rates in your state. Remember to consider this value over a three-year time period.
  • Compare the value of repairs to your total rate increase and your deductible. If it is cheaper to file a claim, file a claim.

If you’re going to file a claim, do so as quickly as possible — at the scene of the wreck if you can. Once your claim is filed, the insurance adjuster will take care of reviewing important materials like the police report, witness accounts, and photos of the damages, and they will handle payouts to the other party, if applicable. If your car needs repairs, the insurance company will work with your repair shop.

Learn more about how insurance companies handle total loss scenarios.


How long do car insurance claims take?

Car insurance claims can take anywhere from a week or two to many months depending on the nature of the claim. Your claim-processing time will depend on the nature of your accident. For instance, claims that require further investigation — as in cases where fault isn't immediately clear — expect the process to be on the longer side. Medical claims are also likely to take longer to process.

Where you live is also likely to impact how long it takes to settle an insurance claim. Most states allow insurance companies upwards of 30 days to investigate claims. Some states may vary in how long they allow. Likewise, if your area is prone to bad weather — snow, ice, flooding — then you may experience a delay due to a rise in claims being filed. For this reason, it's always wise to file a claim promptly and with all of the required documentation.


Why are auto insurance claims denied?

Few things can be more frustrating — or more financially damaging — than having a car insurance claim denied. Large sums of money could be at stake if you don’t abide by your insurance company's rules. While the following list is by no means exhaustive, it will give you an idea of some of the more common reasons for car insurance claims to be denied. 

Fraud 

Lying to an insurance company is considered insurance fraud and can get you into all sorts of trouble. At best, it will lead to you getting dropped or having your claims denied. At worst, you could face serious legal issues. 

 

Insufficient coverage 

Make sure you know exactly what your policy’s limits are and what your insurance covers. Your insurance company won’t pay beyond your policy limits, meaning that only carrying minimum liability coverage may not be the best idea. Similarly, you can’t expect your insurance company to fix your car after you hit a deer if you don’t have comprehensive coverage. A detailed list of your limits and specific coverages can be found on your policy’s declarations page

 

Excluded drivers 

If a driver explicitly excluded from the policy gets behind the wheel, insurance provides no coverage. Should the excluded driver be found at fault, the driver and policyholder could be held personally liable for all damages. 

Claims papers and photograph of damage

Waiting too long to file a claim

After an accident, it’s important to act quickly:

  • Report the claim in a timely manner. If you wait too long to report it, an insurance company can deny it as they won’t be able to properly investigate it. See our state-by-state list of claim validity durations
  • Seek medical attention related to a claim within a reasonable amount of time. If you don’t, you could face a denial. 

 

Non-payment of premiums 

If you don’t pay your premiums, you could lose your coverage. The amount of time that you have after missing a payment before your coverage is dropped is at your insurer's discretion. 

DUI/DWI

If you are found to have been driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of a collision, your insurance company may deny your claim. Learn more about DUI violations and insurance.

beer bottles DWI

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What to do if your auto insurance claim is denied

If you have a car insurance claim you feel was unfairly denied, there are some actions you can take. Have a look at the options below:

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Appeal with your insurer

Your first step is to appeal the decision through your insurance company. Most reputable insurers usually have a process in place to appeal denied claims. You may be required to draft a letter explaining why you are appealing the decision. For this, you will want to have all of the evidence available, including police reports, witness statements, and your policy information.

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Seek assistance from your state

Should a direct appeal fail, consult your state’s insurance commission. Many states have resources available to protect consumers, some of which may step in to assist you, or can at least give you an option to lodge a complaint. 

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Hire an attorney

If your appeals to both the company and the state have failed to gain traction, you have the option to involve an attorney. While this can be costly — and still offers no guarantee of success — an attorney can likely get a written response as to why the claim was denied and force them to defend their position. With this information in hand, they could work toward getting the decision reversed.