Car Insurance Deadlines: How Long After an Accident Can You File a Claim?

Car insurance claims aren't usually subject to a one-size-fits-all deadline; the timeline typically hinges on your car insurance company’s ability to investigate your claim.

By , J.D. · Villanova University School of Law

Here's what you need to know about when to get the car insurance claim process started after a car accident.

  • Any deadline for filing an insurance claim is distinct from (and not to be confused with) the deadline for filing a lawsuit after a car accident.
  • Most car insurance companies require you to promptly (or within a reasonable time) start any claim or report any incident that could trigger coverage.
  • Delay in reporting the accident or starting the claim is usually only an issue if it affects the insurer's ability to investigate the claim, or if the delay comes at a financial cost to the insurer.

What Is a Car Insurance Claim Deadline?

A deadline for filing a car insurance claim refers to the amount of time that can (or should) pass between the occurrence of the car accident and your initiation of the claim process. Depending on the kind of coverage you have and the details of the accident, the insurance claim could be filed with your own insurance company, or with the other driver's insurer (it's called a "third party" claim in the latter situation).

Getting the insurance claim process started usually means letting a representative of the insurance company know that you've been in an accident and that you intend to file a claim for your car accident injuries, your vehicle damage, or both. These days you can usually do that online (most bigger car insurance company websites feature a "Start Your Claim" option), but a phone call always works to get the ball rolling. Learn more about contacting your insurance company after a car accident.

Car Insurance Claim Deadlines Versus Lawsuit Deadlines

It's important to note here that the insurance claim deadlines we're talking about are distinct from the lawsuit-filing deadlines that might also come into play after a car accident. Lawsuit deadlines are strictly enforced and are set by state laws called statutes of limitations. Get more details on car accident lawsuits and deadlines.

There's No Universal Deadline for Filing a Car Insurance Claim

The precise deadline—or, more accurately, the wording pertaining to when a claim must be filed—will vary depending on your particular car insurance policy. Most policies do not provide a strict deadline or window of time (30 days, 60 days, etc.). Instead, you are usually required to make your claim "promptly" or "within a reasonable time."

Some states (especially those that follow a no-fault car insurance system) have passed laws that specifically address this issue. For example, New York, which is a no fault state, requires that you file your claim within 30 days of the accident, unless you have a good reason for not doing so.

How Long Do You Really Have to File an Insurance Claim?

To answer this question, we'll ignore states like New York that have an explicit deadline for filing a claim, or car insurance companies that have actual claim filing deadlines written into their policies.

To answer this question for everyone else (which will be most drivers), we need to understand that the basis for any time requirement is to protect the car insurance company's ability to investigate your claim, including the specifics of the underlying accident.

Your insurance company may have an obligation to pay you for a covered loss, but you as the policyholder have an obligation to take reasonable steps to help them confirm the claimed damages and get to the bottom of key issues like fault for the car accident. As long as your delay in reporting the claim in no way prevents your car insurance company from investigating your claim, then you can probably report the claim as long as you have existing coverage.

For example, let's say your car door got badly dented while you were shopping at a grocery store. Upon discovering this damage, you took plenty of pictures and even got a copy of the grocery store's surveillance tapes showing another driver parking next to you and slamming his door against yours, clearly causing the dent. Let's also assume the surveillance footage is time-stamped to prove when the damage occurred and even shows the other driver's license plate number (you recognize the license plate as belonging to your neighbor). For whatever reason, you decide not to immediately file a claim with your car insurance company. However, several months later, the dent starts to bother you, so you call your insurance company and report the damage.

Did you file your vehicle damage claim in a timely manner? Your car insurance company will probably think not. They might argue that you waited too long and therefore, the company's ability to assess the damage and identify the responsible driver is now compromised. As a result, they can try to deny your claim.

Did the Delay "Prejudice" Your Claim?

Continuing with our example, if you show your car insurance company the video footage, your pictures which show the dent in your door, and explain how they can get in touch with your neighbor, your insurance company may have a difficult time denying your claim.

This is because your car insurance company probably wasn't actually harmed or "prejudiced" by your delay in reporting the loss. In other words, your car insurance company isn't allowed to deny a claim based on the technicality of submitting a claim well after the accident. Only when the late filing of a claim actually results in detriment to the car insurance company can they use the late filing as a reason to deny the claim. Otherwise, the insurer may be liable for bad faith denial of an injury claim.

Is it always guaranteed to work out this way? No, since you have probably violated one of your duties under your car insurance policy. By waiting to file the claim, you have just given your car insurance company a quick and easy justification for denying your claim. Does this mean they're correct and your claim isn't covered? Not necessarily, but they now have a plausible reason for denying your claim. This means in order for you have your dent fixed, you may have no choice but to sue your car insurance company. But the cost to sue will likely be higher than paying for that dented door yourself.

Why It's Important to Start the Insurance Claim Process ASAP

After a car accident, getting the insurance claim process started can be beneficial for everyone, including you (the claimant). That's because:

  • accident evidence will be easier to gather, and investigation will be more effective
  • witness memories will be fresh
  • the details of the accident (and the impact of your injuries) will be clear in your mind, and
  • the sooner you get the claim process started, the sooner you receive a settlement.

Next Steps If You've Delayed the Car Insurance Claim Process

Especially if you've delayed filing a car insurance claim after an accident that caused you significant injuries, it might make sense to discuss your situation with a skilled legal professional. Having the right lawyer on your side can make a big difference if things get adversarial. Learn more about when to hire a car accident lawyer.

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