The answer varies.
A car accident, even a minor one, can be a scary experience. And there’s a lot to take care of afterwards — dealing with any injuries, assessing damages, trying to process what happened. You might be tempted to delay filing a claim with your car insurance provider, or you may want to wait to see the full extent of any damage or medical issues. But just how long can you actually wait to file?
Whether you’re filing a claim solely with your own provider or you’re filing what’s called a third-party claim with the at-fault driver’s provider, you should try to file as soon after an accident as is reasonably possible, but you do have some time.
Check your specific policy. Your insurer likely requires you to report accidents soon after they happen, often within 30 days. And then when it comes to filing claims (which is different from reporting an accident) your provider might not give a time limit, or it might set specific limits for types of coverage. Some insurers, for example, might give you three years to file claims for bodily injury.
Auto insurance policies often stipulate that you should report accidents “promptly,” which is vague but basically means you should report an accident as soon as you can, sometimes even while you’re still at the scene. To find out how long your specific insurance actually gives you to report, check your policy or contact your provider directly.
Your insurer might also require you to notify the police within a certain amount of time, often 24 hours, after an accident.
Your insurer may even have a mobile app that helps you document the accident and prepare to file a claim either with them and with the other party’s insurance company. But don’t worry if they don’t have a way to do it easily online, you should still call your provider and report an accident right away so you can get the process started.
Then, after you’ve reported an accident to your insurer, you’ll have some time to file resulting claims. Many major insurers stipulate that you have as long as two or three years to file a claim under certain types of coverage. Again, check your policy or check with your provider to find out how long you have to file any claims after an accident. However, bear in mind that after you’ve filed a claim, your provider might give you a much shorter deadline, sometimes 30 days, by which you have to submit all documents related to that claim.
There are certain steps you definitely need to take when reporting an accident and preparing to file a claim:
That will help make sure anyone involved is safe and getting any necessary medical care. If you call the police to the scene, they’ll document the accident in a police report, which is often necessary for filing a claim. Insurers often require that you report the accident to the police within 24 hours.
Your insurance provider might have a checklist available that will take you through all the specific information you’ll need, but make sure to take down the names, addresses, phone numbers and insurance policy information of everyone involved.
You should also take photos and record details of the accident, like order of events, location and weather. You can even diagram the scene of the accident.
As we mentioned earlier, your insurance company might have an app to streamline this step, but if they don’t (or if you prefer phone calls) you should call your provider. Even if you believe you weren’t at fault in the accident and plan on filing a third-party claim with the other person’s insurance, you should notify your own provider.
Now you’ve reported the accident “promptly,” and you’ve laid the necessary groundwork to file any claims. Your provider will assign you a claims adjuster who will help take you through the process as well as investigate your accident and any follow-up to it, including repairs and medical care.
A good tip to remember as you go through the claims process is to keep copies of everything. Whether you’re filing a claim in the hours, days, or weeks after an accident, you’ll need to quickly show all the relevant documents, like bills or medical records.
If you have auto damage that shows up months after an accident, or injuries that become clear over time, it’s still possible to file a claim — but keep in mind that the claims adjuster will take a close look at it to make sure the damage or injury you’re reporting actually came from the accident in question and didn’t happen later.
The later you file a claim, the more likely it is that a provider will deny it, but as long as you’re within your policy’s timeline for filing (if there is one) and you’ve previously reported the accident, it’s still possible that your claim will be approved. If you’re filing after a specific amount of time your provider has given to file claims, well, they no longer have the same obligation to you.
Something else to keep in mind is that your state has laws called a statute of limitations that determine how long you have to file a lawsuit following personal injury or property damage. That technically guarantees you a certain amount of time to pursue legal action following a car accident.
This window can be anywhere from 1 to 10 years long, depending on your state and the type of damages, so, if you want to leave open the possibility of suing another party after an accident, make sure you take action before your state’s statute of limitations expires.
About the author
Anna Swartz is a Managing Editor at Policygenius in New York City, and an expert in auto insurance. Previously, she was a senior staff writer at Mic, writing about news and culture. Her work has appeared in The Dodo, AOL, HuffPost, Salon and Heeb.
Policygenius’ editorial content is not written by an insurance agent. It’s intended for informational purposes and should not be considered legal or financial advice. Consult a professional to learn what financial products are right for you.
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