In the aftermath of winning or settling a lawsuit, it is essential to understand the potential federal and state income tax implications and how to avoid paying taxes on settlement money. While some settlements may be subject to federal and state income taxes, there are strategies you can employ to minimize your tax liability. By familiarizing yourself with the rules and regulations surrounding taxable settlements, you can make informed decisions and potentially reduce your tax burden. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore various factors that affect the taxability of lawsuit settlements and provide actionable tips to help you navigate the complex world of taxes on settlement money.
According to the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 61, all payments received from any source are considered gross income unless a specific exemption exists. This general rule applies to lawsuit settlements as well. However, IRC Section 104(a)(2) excludes taxable income for certain types of settlements and awards. In determining the taxability of a settlement, it’s crucial to consider the purpose for which the settlement or award was received. Not all amounts received from a settlement are exempt from federal and state income taxes, so it’s essential to analyze the specific circumstances surrounding each settlement payment.
When identifying which settlements are tax-exempt, it’s essential to understand the IRS’ key criteria. The following factors play a significant role in determining the taxability of a lawsuit settlement:
1. Physical Injury or Sickness
Settlements related to physical injuries or illnesses, where there is observable bodily harm, are generally not considered taxable by the IRS. Compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering from physical injuries falls under this category. These settlements are often tax-exempt, relieving individuals who have suffered physical harm or illness.
2. Emotional Distress
While settlements for physical injuries or illnesses are tax-exempt, emotional distress awards are typically subject to taxes. However, if the emotional distress is directly related to the physical injury or illness caused by the accident, it may still qualify for tax-exempt status. It’s essential to establish a clear connection between the emotional distress and the physical injury or illness to determine the taxability of the settlement.
3. Medical Expenses
Settlements designated explicitly for medical expenses are generally not taxable. However, if you have previously deducted these medical expenses on your tax return, the corresponding settlement amount will be subject to taxes under the IRS “tax benefit rule.” This rule ensures that you do not receive a double tax benefit by deducting medical expenses and excluding settlement proceeds related to those expenses.
4. Punitive Damages
Punitive damages, awarded to punish the defendant for their wrongdoing, are almost always taxable. Whether the underlying case involves physical injuries, the IRS considers punitive damages taxable income. It’s important to note that only the portion allocated to compensatory damages may be eligible for tax-exempt status if the settlement includes compensatory and punitive damages.
5. Legal Fees
The tax treatment of legal fees depends on the nature of the settlement. If your settlement is tax-exempt, the legal fees associated with the case will not affect your taxable income. However, if your settlement is taxable, you may owe taxes on the full settlement amount, even if the defendant pays your attorney directly. It’s crucial to consider the tax implications of legal fees when negotiating settlement agreements.
Now that you understand the factors that determine the taxability of lawsuit settlements, let’s explore some practical strategies to minimize your settlement tax liability:
1. Allocate Damages Appropriately
During settlement negotiations, you may have the opportunity to allocate a more significant portion of the settlement to non-taxable award categories, such as physical injuries or illnesses. By strategically negotiating the allocation of damages, you can potentially reduce the taxable portion of your settlement and minimize your overall tax liability.
2. Spread Payments Over Time
Receiving a sizeable taxable settlement in a single year can push you into a higher tax bracket, resulting in higher taxes. Consider negotiating for structured settlement payments spread over multiple years to avoid this potential tax burden. By receiving smaller payments over time, you can potentially reduce the portion of your income subject to higher tax rates.
3. Consider Qualified Settlement Funds
Qualified Settlement Funds (QSFs), like QSF 360, provide a mechanism to defer taxes on settlement proceeds. By establishing a QSF, the settlement funds can be held in a special statutory trust, allowing you to defer tax liability until later. QSFs offer flexibility and are particularly useful for individuals with complex settlement arrangements or ongoing litigation.
4. Take Advantage of Capital Gains Treatment
Depending on the nature of your claim, you may be able to treat a portion of your settlement as capital gains instead of ordinary income. If your settlement involves damage to property, such as a home or business, you might qualify for capital gains treatment. Consult a tax professional to determine if this strategy applies to your situation.
5. Seek Professional Tax Advice
Navigating the intricacies of tax law can be challenging, especially regarding lawsuit settlements. To ensure you are taking advantage of all available tax-saving opportunities, it’s advisable to seek professional tax advice. An experienced tax professional can guide you through the complexities of tax planning, help you understand the specific tax implications of your settlement, and assist you in optimizing your tax strategy.
6. Eliminate the Taxation of Attorney Fee Portion
As discussed in Why Taxes on Lawsuit Settlements Are Higher Than You Think, one of the most significant tax traps for plaintiffs is your taxation of attorney fees. Suppose you are a plaintiff represented by a contingent fee lawyer. In that case, the IRS considers you to have received 100% of the money recovered, even if the defendant pays your lawyer directly. This “tax doctrine” means that, in most cases, you will be taxed on the entire settlement amount, even if a portion goes to your attorney. For example, if you settle a lawsuit for $100,000, and your lawyer takes $40,000 as a contingency fee, you will still be taxed on the total $100,000.
TIP: There is an effective solution for many circumstances – the Plaintiff Recovery Trust – but it must be in place before the settlement or judicial award is finalized.
Winning or settling a lawsuit is a significant achievement, but it’s crucial to understand the potential tax implications of your settlement. In many circumstances, the Plaintiff Recovery Trust may assist in minimizing the tax burden.
By familiarizing yourself with the rules and regulations surrounding taxable settlements, you can make informed decisions to minimize tax liability. Remember to consider factors such as physical injury or sickness, emotional distress, punitive damages, and legal fees when assessing the taxability of your settlement. Employing strategies like allocating damages appropriately, spreading payments over time, and seeking professional tax advice can help you navigate the complexities of taxes on lawsuit settlements and optimize your overall financial outcome.