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Insurance is like gambling. You and the insurance company are betting on the likelihood of you filing a claim and the amount of that claim.

So, who wins this bet?

If you play your cards right, you can.

Submitting a claim on your home or auto policy is pretty simple. It usually involves contacting your agent, filling out a claim form and waiting for an adjuster to look over the damage. Then, if appropriate, it's just a matter of waiting for your check to arrive. Most claims are handled quickly.

Each state has its own performance requirements when it comes to responding to claims. If you feel your insurer isn't moving quickly enough on your claim, call your state's insurance department.

The claims process can be hazardous, though, 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. The insurers want to stay away from high risks, so you should 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.

Here are some general tips for handling auto and home insurance claims:

  • Know your policy. It's important to understand what your policy says. The policy is a contract between you and your insurance company. Make sure you know what's covered and what's not 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." Insurance companies get a little skittish when you threaten to get a lawyer involved. Once you hire an attorney, the adjuster, the insurance company and your agent will be able to communicate only with the lawyer. If you really need help settling your claim, call your state insurance department first.
  • Keep a copy of the police report. If your claim involves a 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.)
  • Get an estimate or two. It's important to get a second opinion on the repairs needed for your vehicle or your home. The adjuster may be able to approve your claim on the spot if you have a reliable estimate from a reputable source.

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  • Make temporary repairs. If your home is damaged, you should make whatever temporary repairs are needed to protect your home and you from further damage or injury. These should always be covered by your policy. Just remember not to start any permanent repairs until you hear from an adjuster. If you make any temporary repairs, make copies of the bills for your records, just in case the adjuster loses them.
  • Document, document, document. This is important both before you need to make a claim and when you need to make one. Save the receipts for items you buy. That will help prove what items you had and how much those items cost. Photographs and/or videotapes of your home (in both pre- and post-disaster form) can also be beneficial. 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. Most cell phones now have cameras built in, so be sure you know how to use yours if you have one. If you don't have a camera phone, keep one disposable camera in your glove compartment and one at home.