Can you ask your insurance company to total your car? (Negotiate a Write-Off)

You can ask your insurance company to total your car if the repair costs exceed 50% of the car's actual cash value (ACV). Ultimately, you can tell the insurance company to total your car, but the insurance company gets to decide if it is a total loss. Of the 50 states, 22 leave the total loss threshold for the insurance companies to define (with some qualifications), while the remaining 28 (and District of Columbia) define set thresholds.

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Zaneta Wood, Ed.S. has over 15 years of experience in research and technical writing bringing a keen understanding of data analysis and information synthesis to reach a wide variety of audiences. She studied adult education and instructional technology at Appalachian State University as well as technical and professional communication at East Carolina University. Zaneta has prepared technical p...

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Joel Ohman is the CEO of a private equity backed digital media company. He is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, author, angel investor, and serial entrepreneur who loves creating new things, whether books or businesses. He has also previously served as the founder and resident CFP® of a national insurance agency, Real Time Health Quotes. He has an MBA from the University of South Florida. Jo...

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Reviewed by Joel Ohman
Founder & CFP®

UPDATED: Jan 21, 2021

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Summary Stats
SummaryFrom the Experts...
Of the 50 states, 22 leave the total loss threshold up to the insurance companies to define (with some qualifications), while the remaining 28 (and District of Columbia) define set thresholdsMatthiesen, Wickert & Lehrer
You can negotiate your settlement with the insurance companyNolo
You can keep your vehicle after its been declared a total lossHG Legal Resources
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When your car is damaged in a major accident, and you file a car insurance claim, the insurance company assigns a claims adjuster to review your case and make an assessment of the total damage and repair costs for your car. The car insurance company will decide whether to total your car if the cost of repairs reaches a certain percentage of your car’s overall value.

In the event of an accident, you might be asking questions. What does it mean when an insurance company totals a car? Can I ask insurance to total my car?

We know it can be frustrating to find answers to questions like this, so we’ve done the research for you. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about a totaled vehicle, how insurance companies determine whether or not to total your car, and more.

Before we answer, “Can I ask my insurance company to total my car?” Make sure you have the right coverage for your situation so you’re prepared if your vehicle needs to be totaled by using your ZIP code to get a free quote on car insurance.

Car Insurance and Declaring a Total Loss

So you’ve been in an accident, you know your vehicle requires extensive repairs, and you’ve filed a claim. What’s next? You’ll receive a notification from the company that a claims adjuster has been assigned to your case, and you should direct all of your questions about your claim to them.

But how do car insurance companies determine total loss? When does insurance write off a car? Is there a difference between how a car total loss not at fault situation and a car totaled at fault situation is handled? Read through the next few sections to find out.

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Can I ask my insurance company to total my car?

After an accident, you can ask your insurance company to total your car, but they have a specific formula and approach that determines whether or not they’ll actually do so. In the next few sections we’ll cover how insurance companies declare a total loss and what you can do to influence their decision.

What value do insurance companies use to total a car?

Insurance companies often use a total loss formula (TLF) to determine whether or not to total a vehicle. Essentially, companies compare the estimated cost of repairs plus the salvage value to the actual cash value (ACV).

Insurance companies calculate the ACV of your vehicle by determining the price and value of your vehicle (often with sources like Kelley Blue Book). Watch video to learn more about ACV.

Reach out to your claims adjuster to find out their estimated valuation for your vehicle. You’ll want to compare this estimated amount against the actual value of your car.

How much damage does it take for insurance to total a car?

To understand what amount of damage means a total loss, you’ll need to know your insurance company’s approach to the TLF, which you can speak to your claims adjuster and your insurance agent about. You’ll also need to be familiar with the laws in your state, which ultimately set the thresholds within which the insurance company must operate when determining total loss.

This table summarizes the total loss thresholds in every state.

Vehicle Total Loss Thresholds by State
StatesTotal Loss Threshold
District of Columbia75%
New Hampshire75%
New JerseyTLF
New MexicoTLF
New York75%
North Carolina75%
North Dakota75%
Rhode IslandTLF
South Carolina75%
South DakotaTLF
West Virginia75%
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As you can see, thresholds for total loss vary by state. For the states with a set threshold, the result of the TLF formula must be at or greater than the set percentage in order for a total loss to be declared.

Why won’t the insurance company total my car? Most likely because the TLF did not meet the threshold set by the state (or the insurance company, when the state doesn’t define a set percentage).

Can I negotiate with the insurance company?

If you think the cost of repairs that your car insurance company has set out is too low (which will affect whether or not your vehicle is declared a total loss), you are free to get another estimate on your own.

In general, the estimate you present to your insurance company is more likely to hold weight if it is an average of several auto repair shops in your area, at which point the insurer can’t say your repair estimate is unreasonable.

It’s important to know how to negotiate with car insurance adjusters about your car’s total loss settlement. Nolo provides the following tips:

  • Do your research and know how much your claim is worth
  • Don’t immediately accept the first offer from the claims adjuster
  • If the offer is low, ask for an explanation before providing your response
  • Once you’ve outlined the facts, focus on the emotional arguments
  • Conduct all negotiations in writing (and get the settlement in writing as well)

You want to have a record of communications so you know the exact rationale for the settlement amount and why the insurer made the decision they did (declaring your vehicle a total loss or not).

This negotiation is also key in how to get a new car after a total loss because it’s important to make sure you’re getting a fair settlement, which can help you afford a replacement vehicle.

Depending on how valuable your vehicle is, you may want to hire a lawyer to negotiate with the insurer so you can be sure you’re getting the best possible settlement in your situation.

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What happens if I’m the at-fault driver?

If you are at fault for a crash, your own car insurance policy will cover the physical damage to your vehicle. Depending on how the damage was incurred, either your comprehensive car insurance or collision coverage car insurance will apply.

If you are in an actual accident, your collision insurance would be the way you recover for the cost of the repairs, while if your vehicle was damaged in some other way (weather, vandalism, etc.) your comprehensive policy would cover the repairs. 

The limits of your comprehensive insurance or collision coverage will determine how much your insurer is required to pay out on your claim. If the damage to your car is more than the limits of your policy, you’ll have to pay the remainder out-of-pocket.

What about the claims process?

Under your current policy, you’ll need to follow the process outlined by your insurer to file a claim. But if you’re shopping for new coverage, you should ask a licensed insurance agent about how a company you’re considering handles claims before you decide whether to purchase a policy from them. You can also ask car insurance companies how they negotiate settlements so you have an idea of their settlement and negotiation policies and tactics.

In addition to finding the most affordable coverage, you want to make sure that you are working with an car insurance company that honors its policies and is known for processing claims effectively. You’ll also need to take into account their reputation for customer service, as well as what options for coverage are available.

For example, some car insurance companies offer more discounts than others, which might actually lower your rates more than you might expect.

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The Bottom Line for Car Insurance and Totaling your Vehicle

The decision of whether to declare your car a total loss or to cover the cost of repairing it will be entirely up to the car insurance company.

While you may not necessarily want to have your car repaired after a major accident and prefer to receive a settlement check for its value immediately after the accident; this decision will not ultimately be up to you.

You do have the right to have your car repaired at the shop of your choice, but the car insurance company is only responsible for paying for a reasonable repair cost for your car.

Frequently Asked Questions: Can I ask my insurance company to total my car?

Still have questions about asking your insurance company to total your car? Read through these frequently asked questions to learn more.

#1 – Can I keep my vehicle if the insurance company totals it?

The insurance company wants to total my car but I want to keep it. Can I?  After the insurance company totals a vehicle, you can typically keep it (this is referred to as a buy back), but you’ll need to repair it before you can legally drive it again.

When calculating how much it costs to buy back a totaled car from insurance, there is no direct cost to you. The insurance company will pay you the ACV of your vehicle, minus what the car would have sold for at auction.

#2 – How long does it take for insurance to total a car?

This is dependent on a number of factors including how long it take for the insurance adjuster to come up with the initial estimated value of your vehicle and first settlement offer, how long the negotiation between you and the insurance company takes, whether you engage a lawyer or not, etc. It can be a lengthy process, so the sooner you file a claim, the better.

#3 – Can the insurance company force you to total your car?

The insurance company makes the determination about whether or not your vehicle is totaled, but it is up to you whether you keep the vehicle or not.

Before you go, use your ZIP code to start comparing rates to make sure you are covered for a totaled car.

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