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How to maximize the insurance claims process

Submitting a claim on your home or auto policy is pretty simple. It usually involves contacting your agent or insurance company, filling out a claim form, and waiting for an adjuster to look over the damage.

Each state has its own time requirements for insurers to respond to claims, known as prompt-pay laws. If you feel your insurer is stalling or ignoring your claim, contact your state's insurance department. (For contact information, choose your state from the menu on this page.)

The claims process can be hazardous, particularly if you make too many claims. Most insurance companies will cancel your policy if you make two or three claims in a short period of time, often a year. They want to stay away from high risks, so be sure to make only those claims that are absolutely necessary. Granted, if your policy is supposed to cover a particular loss, don't be afraid to make a claim — just keep in mind that there can sometimes be unpleasant repercussions.

Tips for handling auto and home insurance claims

Know your policy. Understand what your policy says. The policy is a contract between you and your insurance company. Know what's covered and what's excluded, and what the deductibles are. If you have any questions about the policy, the time to ask is before you need to make a claim.

Stake your claim quickly. Call your agent or your company's claims hotline as soon as possible. Your policy may require that you make the notification within a certain time frame. Getting your agent involved first may help speed things along and get you some personal attention.

Avoid using the word "lawyer." Don't assume that mentioning a lawyer right off the bat is going to help you. Once you hire an attorney, the adjuster, the insurance company, and your agent will only be able to communicate with the lawyer. If you really need help settling your claim, call your state insurance department first. If you have a home insurance claim that's very large and you need help settling it, consider hiring a public adjuster to work on your behalf. (See Public claims adjusters can level the playing field for you.)

Keep a copy of the police report. If your claim involves a car collision, file a police report and keep a copy of it. Get the name, address, phone number, and name of the other party's insurance company before you leave the scene. While you're there, don't admit fault or offer to pay for the damages. It could jeopardize your insurance coverage. (For more tips, see What to do after an auto accident.)

Get repair estimates. It's important to get a second opinion on the repairs needed for your vehicle or your home. The insurance adjuster may be able to approve your claim on the spot if you have a reliable estimate from a reputable source.

Make temporary repairs. If your home is damaged, make whatever temporary repairs are needed to protect your home and your family from further damage or injury. These repairs should always be covered by your policy. Don't start any permanent repairs until you hear from an adjuster. If you make temporary repairs, make copies of the bills and/or receipts for your records.

Document, document, document. This is important both before and after you make a claim. Save the receipts for items you buy. Photographs and/or videotapes of your home (both in pre- and post-disaster form) are advantageous in demonstrating your loss. These will help you establish an inventory of your belongings should the need arise. Take photos or videos of the damage before you begin cleaning up.

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