Collecting a Car Accident Settlement or Judgment

How, when (and if) you collect your money depends on how your car accident case is resolved.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

At some point, your car accident injury case will be resolved, usually through a settlement with the insurance company, or (in rare instances) after a trial. Resolution of the insurance claim or lawsuit process is obviously an important step in getting your life back to normal after a car accident, but it's not necessarily the final step.

If you reach a settlement, or win a verdict at trial, you still need to collect the money you are owed, and that's not always as simple as you might expect. Let's explore the issue of getting your car accident settlement check or collecting your judgment through the lens of the most common claim/case resolution scenarios.

After a Car Accident Settlement With an Insured Driver

After weeks or months of negotiating, you have reached a settlement with the insurance company. The first thing you should do is get the settlement offer in writing. Chances are the insurance adjuster will do this pretty promptly. If not, consider sending a letter to the adjuster stating:

  • the claim number of your case
  • the amount of the final settlement offer that was made to you, and
  • that you agree to accept the offer.

The insurance company will then send you (or your attorney if you have one) a "release" for your signature. A release is a legally binding document in which the insurance company agrees to pay you a stated amount in exchange for your giving up the right to pursue the insurer, or the insured other driver, for any future damages arising out of this particular car accident. Oftentimes the insurer will not provide a settlement check until it has received back the signed release. Once the release is returned, the insurer will send a settlement check.

If you have an attorney, the insurance company will usually send the check made out to both you and your attorney. Your attorney will deposit the check in a law firm account and will write you a separate check after taking out any of his or her attorney fees and costs, according to your agreement with the lawyer. (Learn more about how much a car accident lawyer might cost you.)

If you still owe medical bills related to your car accident injuries, your attorney can also use the settlement money to pay your health care providers. In some cases, the insurance company has made an arrangement with a health care provider and will deduct amounts owed from the check sent to you, and send payment to the health care provider directly. If at all possible, it's best for you and your attorney to take care of paying off any outstanding medical bills, because you may be able to negotiate the amount owed to the medical provider.

After a Car Accident Settlement With an Uninsured Driver

Collecting settlement money from an insurance company is relatively straightforward. It is extremely rare for an insurer to fail to pay after a settlement has been reached, especially if you have put the agreement in writing.

On the other hand, if you have settled directly with the uninsured driver of the other car, collecting any settlement may be a challenge. As with any settlement offer, make sure your agreement is in writing and signed by both parties. Depending on your state, you may be able to file a lien on the at-fault party's property. If things get contentious, you can pursue a judgment against the driver either through small claims court or local civil court.

After a Car Accident Trial With an Insured Driver

If you were unable to successfully negotiate a settlement with either the insurance company or the other driver individually, you may have filed a lawsuit, and the case may have proceeded all the way to a trial.

After a trial in a car accident case, a jury or judge will render a verdict. This should include a finding as to who is at fault, and if you are the prevailing party, you will likely be awarded some amount of monetary damages. Once a verdict is reached, the judge will enter judgment in your favor.

A court judgment means you are legally entitled to recover the money awarded. If the other driver was insured, the insurance company likely represented the driver at trial, and is aware that a judgment has been entered in the case. Unless an appeal is filed, the insurance company will forward payment to you and/or your attorney shortly after the trial. In the unlikely event that the insurer refuses to pay, you can return to the court and seek enforcement of the judgment.

After a Car Accident Trial With an Uninsured Driver

If the other driver was not insured, you will need to obtain payment directly from that driver. In many instances, this will prove to be difficult, especially if the uninsured driver has been found liable to you for a significant amount of money.

The other driver may be unable, or unwilling, to pay you the entire amount at once. If you cannot work out a reasonable payment plan, you can file a lien against the at-fault driver's property. In some jurisdictions you may also be able to garnish a portion of the driver's wages to get partial or total payment of your judgment. Because obtaining liens and enforcing judgments can be difficult, you may want to speak to an attorney about your options.

Next Steps

Whether you're just starting your car accident claim or you've hit a snag in getting your money, it might make sense to discuss your options with a car accident lawyer. You can use the chat tools right on this page to connect with an attorney in your area, or get more information on when it's time to get a lawyer's help after a car accident.

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