When the car you drive every day is "totaled" in a car accident, your routine can be turned upside down. To make matters worse, you might end up "upside down" on your car loan too (owing more on your loan than your car is worth).
When you total a financed car, here are a few things you need to know:
A "total loss" car is a car that an insurance company decides is not worth the cost to fix. Most states have formulas for determining when a car is totaled. State law might say, for example, that an insurer has to total a car when the cost to repair it is more than 80% of the car's value.
So, let's say you wreck your car. Your insurer decides your car's actual cash value (fair market value) on the day of the accident was $10,000. Applying the "80% Rule," the insurance adjuster will see if the cost to repair your car will be more or less than $8,000 (80% of $10,000).
If the repairs cost less than $8,000, the insurer will pay for your repairs. But if repairs cost more than $8,000, your car is a total loss and the insurer won't pay to repair it. Instead, the insurer will essentially buy your totaled car from you. You will provide the insurer with the title of your car in exchange for your car's ACV ($10,000). If your car is financed, the insurance settlement check will go to your lender first to pay off the balance of your car loan and you will receive whatever money is left over, if any.
You might be able to keep your totaled car, but you'll have to pay for it. Insurers typically auction off totaled cars to car dealers or scrappers for parts. So, if you decide to keep a totaled car, the insurer will deduct the salvage price from your insurance settlement. For example, if your car's ACV is $5,000 and the insurer can get $500 from a salvage buyer for it, your insurance settlement will be $4,500 ($5,000 - $500).
Totaled cars can be expensive to repair. Most states require you to get a salvage title for a totaled car. Cars with salvage titles are hard to sell and insure. Think carefully about whether keeping a totaled car is worth the cost and potential headaches.
Once a car is totaled and you sign the title over to the insurance company, the car no longer belongs to you and you don't have to pay to insure it. To legally drive a car that was totaled, you have to have the car inspected, get a "rebuilt" title, and purchase new insurance.
If you total a financed car, you are still on the hook for the balance of your loan. Gap insurance can help cover the difference between your car's ACV and what you owe on your loan.
Most people don't have enough cash to buy a new or used car. Instead, they borrow money from a lender (usually a bank or credit union) to buy the car and then pay the lender back in monthly installments over several years. So, what happens when you still owe your lender money for a totaled car? The answer depends on many factors, including:
Your car's actual cash value (ACV) is the value of your car on the day of the accident. Insurers typically look at the sale price of similar vehicles in your area to determine the ACV. Insurers might also use valuation tools like the Kelley Blue Book to figure out a car's ACV.
Your car's ACV isn't directly connected to your car loan. Your car's AVC might be more or less than your car loan at the time of your accident. If you owe more to your lender than your car's ACV, your insurance settlement might be less than your loan balance.
Most lenders require you to get car insurance when you take out a car loan. But your car insurance coverage might not be enough to cover your entire loan when your car is a total loss. Remember: Your insurer will pay only for your car's ACV, not the balance of your car loan.
If you total a car in an accident, you can typically make a collision coverage claim with your own insurance company, no matter who was at fault for the car accident. If your car is totaled by a falling tree branch, fire, or other non-collision accident, your comprehensive coverage will likely cover it.
But your insurer doesn't care about the balance of your loan. Your total-loss insurance payout will be for your car's ACV only. If you owe more money on your loan than your insurance settlement, you are still responsible for paying the difference. Most insurers offer "gap" coverage, which pays the difference between your car's AVC and your loan balance.
Most states require drivers and car owners to have some form of liability insurance or proof of financial responsibility to driver or register a car. Liability coverage pays for other people's injuries and property damage when you are legally responsible (liable) for an accident.
Collision coverage is optional coverage that pays for damage to your car—minus your deductible—no matter who is at fault for the accident. If you total your car in an accident that you caused without collision coverage, you have to pay out of pocket to replace your totaled car.
Even if you are not at fault for the accident, your compensation might be limited if you don't have insurance. Several states have "No Pay, No Play" laws. In these states, if you don't have car insurance at the time of an accident, your ability to recover damages is restricted or barred entirely.
Learn more about what happens when you're in a car accident and uninsured.
If the other driver is at fault for the accident, that driver's liability coverage should cover your car's ACV, which will pay off part or all of your car loan.
But what happens when you are in an accident with an uninsured driver? When your car is totaled by a person who doesn't have car insurance, you'll likely have to rely on your own insurance to cover your losses.
You can purchase underinsured or uninsured motorist coverage (UMI) to help pay off your loan and replace your totaled car when you're in an accident with an uninsured driver. Be sure that your UMI policy covers property damage—some policies only cover car accident injuries. You can also file a claim under your collision coverage.
You can also file a civil lawsuit against the at-fault driver, but it might not be worth the expense unless you know that driver has assets you can recover.
If you're the at-fault driver in an accident and you don't have insurance, you will be stuck with a car payment for your totaled car until the loan is paid off. You will be on the hook financially for any damage you cause and you might face penalties for driving without insurance, including fines and a driver's license suspension.
Gap insurance (short for "Guaranteed Auto Protection") covers the difference between your car's ACV and the amount you owe on your car loan. You can typically purchase gap insurance through your lender or insurance company.
You typically only need gap coverage if you might find yourself upside down on your loan at some point. Factors that might turn you upside down on your car loan include:
Some cars depreciate (lose value) faster than others. Research your car's depreciation using tools like Kelley Blue Book online. Compare your car's ACV with your insurance coverage to figure out whether you need gap protection.
Before you buy gap protection, look at your existing car insurance policy to make sure you're not already covered. Gap insurance is included in some standard insurance policies.
Learn more about whether you need gap insurance.
Gap insurance only kicks in when your car is totaled or stolen to cover the difference between your car's ACV and the current outstanding balance on your loan.
Gap insurance doesn't cover:
If you don't have gap insurance to cover the difference between your total loss settlement and your loan balance, you can try to negotiate with the insurance company.
An insurance company is required to pay fair market value for your car. If you don't agree with the settlement offer from the adjuster, you can counter with your own research. You'll need the current sales price for cars in your area of a similar year, make, model, and trim package. You can use the Kelley Blue Book value or online listings for comparison. The more evidence you have of your car's condition right before the accident, the more convincing your argument will be.
If negotiations aren't going well, you should talk to an attorney. You might be able to file a "bad faith" claim against the insurance company handling your claim, ask for arbitration, or file a lawsuit.
Your ability to shop for a new car after a total loss often depends on your insurance settlement.
If you own your car free and clear you can use your entire settlement check to purchase a new car. If you total a financed car, and the car's ACV is more than your loan balance, you can use your insurance settlement to pay off your loan and shop for a new car with whatever's left. If you owe more than your car's ACV, you can buy a new car with savings or your lender might be able to consolidate what you owe into a new car loan.
If you've totaled your car in an accident, you should talk to an experienced car accident lawyer. A lawyer can help you understand your car's actual cash value (ACV) and negotiate for a fair settlement. Learn more about getting a lawyer's help after a car accident. You can also connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.