If you have to file a claim on your auto or home policy, or on a loved one's life insurance, it pays to know the right procedures, according to Consumer Reports Money Adviser.
Here's what you need to do:
*When an accident occurs: Whenever a crash involves another person or vehicle, call the police to officially document the incident. If you can, take notes at the scene.
At a minimum, get the other vehicle's license-plate information. You should also get the other driver's name, address, driver's license number, insurer's name and policy number and vehicle registration details. Use your cellphone camera to take photos of the scene from all angles.
*When filing the claim: Always call your insurer right away if a crash involves another person or vehicle, Consumer Reports Money Adviser says. Never agree to skip reporting a crash out of sympathy for an at-fault motorist who promises to pay you out of pocket.
If you're at fault, you might not want to file a report with your insurer if damage is limited to your vehicle and you expect costs to be within your deductible or slightly more.
You might be pressured to take your car to a shop in the insurer's direct-repair program or to use cheaper replacement parts instead of original equipment manufacturer parts. You're under no obligation to accept either.
*When the loss occurs: First, make sure your family is safe and that emergency personnel have been called to protect your home. As soon as practical, take pictures of the damage. Then take steps to prevent further damage, such as covering a hole in the roof with a tarp.
Keep receipts for any money you spend to prevent further losses. But don't repair anything or dispose of ruined property until an adjuster has examined everything.
If you were burglarized, call the police first and your insurance agent later.
If someone trips and falls on your front stairs, see to their medical care first. Again, take detailed notes about what happened and get photos of the scene.
*When filing a claim: Report the loss to your insurance agent as soon as practical. Your insurer will send claim forms, which you should return as soon as you can.
Consumer Reports Money Adviser recommends asking about the time limit for filing claims, details about what's covered and how to get repair estimates.
If you have an inventory of your possessions, submit it with your claim along with any photos of damage, receipts, police reports and other evidence that documents the loss. Keep notes about any promises you're given, the date and time of each contact and the name and title of each person you deal with.
Make sure the adjuster sees everything. Ask for a copy of his or her report and scrutinize it for mistakes. You're also entitled to a copy of your entire claims file.
Copy everything you give the adjuster and ask for a receipt. If he or she advises you to start repairs, get that in writing so promises and permissions can be accurately passed on if your case is transferred to another person.
*When the loss occurs: An insurer might delay or deny payment to beneficiaries if the policyholder died within two years after buying the policy. No matter how long a policy was held, however, if no one files a claim, insurers historically haven't done much to find the beneficiaries.
*When filing a claim: The process is simple -- send the insurer a claim form for each beneficiary and a certified copy of the policyholder's death certificate.
To find out if a deceased family member had a life-insurance policy, check his or her files for the policy itself or billing statements; search bank statements for canceled checks to a life insurer; or contact the employee-benefits office of previous employers or unions.
By the editors of Consumer Reports at www.consumerreports.org.