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Understanding Your Auto Insurance Policy

2/24/2012
While everyone that drives in this country has to have some form of auto insurance by law, many do not understand the basics of their policies. While we don't all have to be auto insurance experts, it is important to at least comprehend the major bricks that build our auto insurance policies.

There are five parts of a typical auto insurance contract (the titles of these sections may differ slightly from insurer to insurer, but they all address basically the same points):

Declarations. This part of your policy is unique to you; it contains the personal facts for drivers in your household such as name and address, make and model of your vehicle(s), vehicle identification number(s), policy number and policy duration. It also contains the basic type of coverage you purchased and your policy limits and deductibles. Tip: Make sure your information is accurate; your claim may be denied if you provide inaccurate information to your insurer.

Coverage Parts/Insuring Agreement. This section outlines the coverage options and coverage limits that you purchased, such as liability, medical, collision and comprehensive. This section basically outlines what your insurance company promises to provide in return for your payment, based on the coverages and coverage limits you selected.

Exclusions. This section simply details what is not covered by highlighting your policy's limitations. Combined with the section above, this ensures that you know exactly what will be covered when you make a claim. It also shows you some possible deficiencies that you might want to correct down the line.

Conditions. This is where the legal responsibilities of both the insured and the insurer are listed, including premium payment obligations, steps to filing a claim, and procedures for resolving disagreements.

Definitions. This section defines terms and outlines the rights of the policyholder and the insurance company. This section is often referred to as the "fine print."

Now, let's define some general coverages. For more definitions, please refer to the various auto insurance glossaries listed in our auto learning center.

Collision Coverage. This covers loss to your own auto caused by its collision with another vehicle or object. If you cause an accident, collision coverage will pay to repair your vehicle, and is normally the most expensive part of an auto insurance policy. You must choose a deductible, which is the amount you, the insured, must pay before the insurance company pays the remainder of each covered loss. The higher the deductible, the lower the premium costs. However, keep in mind that this is the amount you must pay (generally to the repair shop) if your vehicle is damaged, so deciding on your deductible, which directly affects your premium, can be a bit of a balancing act.

Comprehensive Coverage. This covers damage to your vehicle caused by an event other than a collision or overturn. Examples include fire, theft, vandalism, and falling objects. This also comes with a deductible you select, which is how much you will pay before the insurance company pays the remainder.

Liability. The official definition of liability from the InsWeb glossary is: "That portion of the insurance contract which pays and renders service on behalf of an insured for a covered loss arising out of the insured's responsibility to others imposed by law or assumed by contract." In simpler terms, if you are at fault in an accident, liability insurance will pay to cover injuries and property damage costs caused to others in the accident (including your legal defense costs, if applicable). Bodily injury coverage pays for things like medical costs and lost salary to others; while property damage pays for repairs to other people's property you damaged in the accident (other than your own car). Liability coverage (which is the state mandated part of your policy) is the basic building block of any auto policy, and minimum liability limits vary from state to state.

Below are some common extra coverage items that are available to you:

Medical Payments
This pays you and your passengers for medical and funeral expenses incurred in an auto accident, regardless of fault. It will also cover injuries sustained by you while you're operating someone else's car (with their permission), in addition to injuries you or your family members incur when you are pedestrians.

Personal Injury Protection
This is the name usually given to no-fault benefits in states that have enacted mandatory or optional no-fault auto insurance laws. Personal Injury Protection (PIP) usually includes benefits for medical expenses, loss of income from work, essential services, accidental death, funeral expenses, and survivor benefits.

No-Fault Insurance
Many states have enacted auto accident compensation laws permitting auto accident victims to collect directly from their own insurance companies for medical and hospital expenses regardless of who was at fault in the accident. Although there are many legal variations of no-fault insurance, most states still allow people to sue the negligent party if the amount of damages exceeds a certain state-determined threshold.

Uninsured/Underinsured Motorists Coverage:

  • Uninsured Motorists Bodily Injury
    Uninsured Motorists Bodily Injury (UMBI) covers you for all sums (up to your policy limits) if an accident occurs with an uninsured or hit-and-run motorist who is determined to be legally at fault.


  • Underinsured Motorists Bodily Injury
    Underinsured Motorist Bodily Injury covers you for all sums (up to your policy limits) if an accident occurs with a motorist who is underinsured (i.e., they carry bodily injury limits less than your UMBI limits and less than the amount of the injuries).


  • Uninsured Motorists Property Damage
    Uninsured Motorist Property Damage (UMPD) Liability coverage pays for property damages caused by uninsured drivers.


There are also other extra items, such as rental reimbursement and towing and labor charges in case of a breakdown. As mentioned above, please visit the Insweb Auto Insurance Glossary for further definitions.

Remember to keep yourself adequately covered; while having the bare minimums required by each state may keep you in compliance with state laws, they may not be enough to protect your assets if you have a major incident. Insurance experts recommend that you review your insurance policy often and thoroughly.

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