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Why Qualified Settlement Funds Are a Valuable Tax and Financial Planning Tool in Personal Injury Cases

Personal Injury and Law Keyboard - QSF Financial Planning Tool

When confronted with resolving a personal injury case, whether or not involving a client reliant on public assistance, intricate issues such as the allocation of proceeds, settlement planning, and lien negotiations must be meticulously managed. One critical question arises: where can the settlement funds be temporarily held while establishing any requisite public benefit preservation trusts, determining the distribution of proceeds, devising a comprehensive financial plan, and finalizing lien negotiations? How can one secure immediate payment from the defendant without compromising the client’s potential settlement planning strategies?

The solution to these complex challenges lies in utilizing a Qualified Settlement Fund (QSF), also known as a 468B Trust. Continue reading to gain a deeper insight into QSFs and understand why they are essential for personal injury attorneys to master.

What Is a QSF

A Qualified Settlement Fund is a provisional trust (think of it as “tax limbo”) established to manage the settlement funds received from one or more defendants. The primary function of a QSF is to distribute the deposited funds to multiple claimants pursuant to the parties’ agreement or, if necessary, a court order. The QSF termination occurs once all the funds are vested and distributed.

There are several benefits to utilizing a QSF in complex settlements. Chief among them is the simplicity of its establishment. There are only three stipulations for forming a QSF. First, the QSF has approval requirements from a “governmental authority” with jurisdiction over the QSF. Second, the QSF must settle only tort claims or other legal disputes as outlined by Treasury regulations 1.468B-1, et seq. Finally, if established as a trust, it must qualify as such under relevant state law. Any “governmental authority,” irrespective of its jurisdiction over the case, can approve the establishment of the QSF and maintain continuing oversight of the QSF.

Qualified Settlement Funds are a provisional repository for litigation and settlement proceeds. Its purpose is not to function as a perpetual support trust for claimants. Instead, the QSF remains operative only until all allocation disputes among parties and third-party liens are complete and the necessary planning for fund distribution is final. This duration can sometimes extend from several weeks to months or even years.


PRO TIP: No predefined time constraint exists on how long a QSF can remain active. Using a QSF to serve as a long-term tax deferral vehicle is improper. The best practice is that a QSF should remain open no more than 12 calendar months beyond resolving all secondary issues and disputes.


QSFs provide numerous advantages for all involved parties, particularly concerning tax implications, income timing, and settlement planning requirements. A QSF allows for establishing a tax-exempt structured settlement and a tax-deferred arrangement for attorney fees. The management of income timing is possible with a QSF. Generally, claimants are not taxed on the amounts held within the QSF until those amounts are vested by the trustee and disbursed. Additionally, a QSF affords claimants additional time and flexibility (through tax deferral) to make informed decisions regarding their tax, financial planning, and settlement planning strategies.

Benefits of a Qualified Settlement Fund

The benefits for a defendant are that transferring the associated proceeds into the QSF results in an immediate tax deduction in exchange for their permanent release from the obligation. This benefit is significant for defendants, who usually cannot claim a deduction until the claimant receives the funds, which can be postponed in complex settlements.


PRO TIP: Note that the timing of distributions to the claimants from the QSF does not affect the defendant’s ability to claim this tax deduction concurrently upon the transfer.


For the plaintiff, the benefits are the advantage of unrushed additional time to explore tax and financial planning options and resolve liens and other types of secondary disputes. This benefit is significant for plaintiffs, as valuable tax and financial options would otherwise not be available.

QSF Structure

The tax structure for Qualified Settlement Funds is straightforward. Each QSF is assigned a unique Employer Identification Number (EIN) by the Internal Revenue Service. QSFs are subject to taxation based on their modified gross income, excluding the monetary settlement or award receipts, and the corporate income tax rate applies only to the “investment income” of the QSF. Consequently, the tax obligation pertains to the growth of the principal amount through interest or dividends minus permissible deductions such as administrative expenses.

Internal Revenue Code §468B, alongside the Income Tax Regulations articulated in §1.468B-1, et seq., governs the application of a Qualified Settlement Fund. These statutes stipulate that a defendant may execute a qualifying payment to the QSF, thereby achieving “economic performance” — a critical tax consideration for the defendant. Consequently, the trustee of the QSF is empowered to accept settlement funds, enabling the defendant to claim a deduction for the current fiscal year and extricate themselves from litigation.

Post receipt of the settlement/litigation proceeds, the QSF trustee can consent to future periodic payments to a plaintiff, delegate this responsibility to a third entity by assignment or novation, and facilitate the plaintiff’s reception of tax-exempt payments under Internal Revenue Code §104(a) coupled with §130. This specific provision excludes structured settlement periodic payments from being counted as gross income in personal injury cases.


PRO TIP: If the settlement is paid into the law firm’s IOLTA, the plaintiff loses the ability to assign, novate, or structure. Likewise, the same loss of ability to enter into an attorney fee structure or assign occurs when funds are received into the IOLTA.


The Process of Utilizing a QSF

Establishing a QSF is a straightforward process in terms of procedural steps. Initially, the “governmental authority” is petitioned to form the QSF. The governmental authority receives the associated petition and documents and approves the establishment of the QSF. Upon the court’s approval and signing of the order, the defendant(s) issue the payment(s) to the QSF by wire or a check, and in exchange, the associated defendant receives a release from liability pertaining to the payment.


PRO TIP: A QSF’s records should document the payment into the QSF rather than directly to the plaintiff or the law firm.


The timing of distributions from a QSF is contingent upon either an agreement with the plaintiffs or an order by a court. When disbursing funds from the QSF, it is incumbent upon the trustee to secure a release from the claimants (or their agent), which serves as evidence that their claims against the QSF have been resolved or satisfied by the distribution. Upon the disbursement of all funds, the trustee terminates the QSF.

QSFs Mitigate the Settlement Time Pressure

QSFs are an essential resource for personal injury trial attorneys primarily because they speed up the process by mitigating the time pressures associated with lien negotiations, allocations, and probate processes.

The conclusion (whether by settlement or award) of a personal injury lawsuit often leads to a frenzied period to finalize details, a situation referred to as the “settlement pressure cooker.” In such hurried circumstances, one might overlook critical details, neglect vital settlement planning matters, trigger unnecessary accelerated taxation, or unfairly pressure the plaintiff to make hasty decisions.

Establishing a QSF enables the receipt of settlement funds, allowing sufficient time for meticulous future planning.


PRO TIP: Plaintiff counsel can promptly receive payment of the claimant’s attorney fees and costs obligations while allowing the plaintiff’s portion net of the plaintiff’s attorney fee obligations to remain in the QSF.


PRO TIP: The QSF is the sole owner of the funds and the associated income of the QSF (§468B(b)(c)(3)). Until the trustee vests a benefit, no claimant has any vested right. Further, the claimants may have a personal obligation to their attorneys for a portion of the settlement as fees, but that obligation vests no rights to the attorneys within the QSF. Therefore, attorneys have no greater standing than any other party that may have a general personal lien against a claimant. Thus, when the QSF makes payments to the attorneys, such payment is solely from the claimant’s proceeds for the administrative convenience of the claimant to fulfill the claimant’s personal obligation.


Once the defendant transfers “collected” funds into the QSF, the claimant may “petition the trustee” to vest and disburse funds subject to all other factors, such as allocation, the satisfaction of liens, resolution of secondary disputes, etc. This arrangement facilitates the negotiation of liens, determining fund allocations, implementing public benefit preservation trusts, and considering settlement planning issues, including structured settlements. Moreover, this mechanism preserves the attorney’s ability to assign or structure their fees. Consequently, the QSF is a valuable tool for trial attorneys to implement effective financial planning.

Conclusion

QSFs serve as a unique tool and valuable resource in personal injury cases by removing the post-settlement/litigation time pressures and affording flexible tax and financial planning options for the defendants, the plaintiffs, and the plaintiff lawyers, as well as facilitating lien resolution and the option to deal with post-settlement secondary disputes.

Disclosure: This content is an overview. It is not a detailed analysis and offers no legal or tax opinion on which you should solely rely. Always seek the advice of competent legal and tax advisors to review your specific facts and circumstances before making any decisions or relying on the content herein.
Any opinions, views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the content contained herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Eastern Point Trust Company, its Affiliates, or their clients. The mere appearance of content does not constitute an endorsement by Eastern Point Trust Company (“EPTC”) or its Affiliates. The author’s opinions are based upon information they consider reliable, but neither EPTC nor its Affiliates, nor the company with which such author(s) are affiliated, warrant completeness, accuracy or disclosure of opposing interpretations.

EPTC and its Affiliates disclaim all liability to any party for any direct, indirect, implied, special, incidental, or other consequential damages arising directly or indirectly from any use of the content herein, which is expressly provided as is, without warranties.
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