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Asking to borrow someone else’s car can be awkward. But it can be a whole lot more awkward if you’re smart about it. Before you take the keys, you should also ask the owner about their auto insurance. If you borrow a car and are in an accident, but the insurance is inadequate, your credit and finances could be at risk.

That’s what our reader Carol’s son experienced recently. When he borrowed his stepmother’s car, he had no reason to think there would be a problem. After all, she gave him permission to do so. But then he rear-ended someone else, and it was only afterward that he discovered that his stepmother’s insurance had lapsed a few days earlier. Without any other insurance to provide secondary coverage, he has been presented with a bill for almost $10,000.

“You are responsible for your own acts irrespective of whether it is your car or someone else’s car,” says Alabama personal injury attorney Robert Norris. “If (the owner) had liability coverage, he should be covered.”

The ins and outs of who pays what in these situations can seem complicated, especially if multiple insurance companies are involved. “When you are not listed on an auto policy, but have permission to drive someone else’s car, the owner’s auto insurance provides primary coverage if you’re at fault,” says Laura Adams senior insurance analyst with insuranceQuotes.com. “Secondary coverage would come from your own auto insurance, if you have it. For instance, if you cause property damage of $75k, but the owner’s policy only covers $50k, your insurance would cover $25k.” But “if you drive someone else’s car without permission and cause an accident, your insurance would be considered primary.”

The best defense is to try not to borrow a car, and if you do, to ask questions about insurance coverage. It’s also a good idea to make sure you have your own auto insurance, and to keep it current, so you’ll have a backup. If you have kids who drive, it’s important they understand the financial risks, because chances are they have no idea.

If you aren’t confident that you’re adequately covered when borrowing a car, it may be better to rent a car and get insurance through the rental agency or use a credit card that provides rental car coverage. (For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred offers an auto rental collision damage waiver. You can read our full review of the Chase Sapphire Preferred here.) Your other option: Find another way to get a ride.

“All drivers should have insurance no matter if they own/lease a vehicle or not,” says Adams. “And it’s critical to verify that anyone who has the keys to your vehicle has their own coverage.”

Even if there is insurance, getting the bills resolved can be a hassle. It may take a while to get payments from the insurance companies and in the meantime, bills may wind up in collections, causing your credit scores to drop. (If you’re dealing with unpaid bills after an accident be sure to monitor your credit scores closely. You can get two of your credit scores for free every 14 days on Credit.com.)

Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.

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