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Prepare for a battle with insurance claims

Ivan Culbertson's Jeep Cherokee was totaled in October 1998, not long after the Salem, Ore., resident started his final year at Willamette University College of Law.

The police found the other driver at fault, but that person's insurer -- a small, high-risk company -- denied Culbertson's claim.Having gathered his own evidence and kept track of every conversation and letter related to the case, Culbertson enlisted the help of the Oregon Insurance Division. An investigator agreed that Culbertson wasn't at fault and sent a letter asking the insurance company to pay his claim.

That finally worked. In March, Culbertson received a check for the full amount of his claim.

Even if you choose an insurer with a good record, there's no guarantee of trouble-free claims. And, like Culbertson, you may have to deal with an insurer you've never heard of. So whenever you have a significant claim, be prepared to battle for a fair settlement. Here's how:

-- Report a claim quickly and try not to alter the scene until you contact your company. Save receipts for major items, police reports and anything else.

-- Ask about deadlines -- yours and the company's. Keep an eye on the statute of limitations. In many states, you can't sue an insurance company more than one year after a claim is filed.

-- Document all phone calls and letters (certified receipts are best). "Get in writing from the company why they're denying a claim," says Robert Hunter of the Consumer Federation of America. "Once they've told you the reason, they can't come up with a new reason."

-- Do some research to build your case. If you and the company disagree on your car's value, for example, check a used-car pricing guide (visit Kelley Blue Book at www.kbb.com) or call a couple of dealers for estimates and report your findings to the adjuster.