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Why Taxes on Lawsuit Settlements Are Higher Than You Think

A book with the title Tax Law printed on the front sitting on a desk with papers, a calculator and a pen


When receiving a settlement or judicial award from a lawsuit, many plaintiffs are often surprised when they discover they must pay taxes on the proceeds. The confusion surrounding the tax implications of lawsuit settlements is compounded by the fact that the income tax rules can be complex and vary depending on the nature of the case and the state in which one resides. This article shall demystify the tax treatment of lawsuit settlements, highlighting the key factors determining these awards’ taxability, explaining why taxes on lawsuit settlements are higher than one may think, and how to avoid paying taxes on settlement money.

We also discuss strategies you can employ to minimize your tax liability in our next article in this series, How to Minimize Tax Liability on Lawsuit Settlements or Avoid Paying Taxes on Settlement Money.

Understanding the Origin of the Claim

One crucial aspect to consider when it comes to the taxation of lawsuit settlements is the origin of the claim. The IRS bases the taxation of settlement awards on the nature of the underlying claim. For instance, if you sue for wages after being laid off, the settlement amount will be taxed as wages. On the other hand, if you sue for damage to your property caused by a negligent contractor, the damages may not be considered income and may be treated as a reduction in the property's purchase price.

It’s crucial to note that the tax treatment of settlement awards is subject to exceptions and nuances. Therefore, it is essential to carefully evaluate how your particular settlement will be taxed, especially in light of recent tax reforms.

Tax-Free vs. Taxable Damages

Recoveries for physical injuries and sickness are generally tax-free, while damages awarded for emotional distress are not automatically tax-exempt. Before 1996, all personal damages, including those for emotional distress, were tax-free. However, the tax code was amended to require that injuries be “physical” to qualify for tax-free treatment. If you sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress, your recovery will be subject to taxation. Recoveries for physical symptoms of emotional distress, like anxiety, sleepiness, stomachaches, and headaches, are also taxed. It’s essential to navigate these distinctions carefully to ensure proper tax reporting.

Allocating Damages to Optimize Taxation

In many legal disputes, multiple issues are at play, and the settlement may involve various types of consideration. It is often possible for the plaintiff and defendant to agree on the allocation of damages, which can have significant tax implications. While these agreements are not binding on the IRS or the courts, they are usually considered. By strategically allocating damages, plaintiffs can potentially minimize their tax burden and optimize the overall tax treatment of their settlement.

The Tax Trap of Attorney Fees

One of the most significant tax traps for plaintiffs is the treatment 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.

It’s worth noting that before 2018, there were two ways to deduct attorney fees: above the line and below the line. However, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 eliminated below-the-line deductions for legal fees, leaving above-the-line deductions as the only remaining option. These deductions are available for employment claims and specific whistleblower claims. Seeking early tax advice before settling a case is essential to understanding the potential tax implications of your settlement and the attorney fee portion.

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.

The Taxation of Punitive Damages and Interest

Unlike compensatory damages, which may be tax-free in certain circumstances, punitive damages and interest are always taxable. If you receive a settlement or judgment that includes compensatory and punitive damages, the compensatory portion may be tax-free, while the punitive portion will be fully taxable. It’s important to distinguish between the different types of damages when assessing your tax obligations. Additionally, interest received before or after a judgment is also subject to taxation and can complicate the overall tax treatment of a settlement.

Exceptions and Nuances in Sexual Harassment Cases

The recent #MeToo movement has brought increased attention to sexual harassment cases, and there are new wrinkles in the tax treatment of these settlements. While the tax reform law generally does not impact plaintiffs suing their employers, there are exceptions and nuances to consider. It’s essential to consult with a tax professional experienced with the specific tax laws and regulations surrounding sexual harassment cases to ensure accurate tax reporting.

The Importance of Proper Reporting and Documentation

Regarding taxes on lawsuit settlements, proper reporting and documentation are crucial. Defendants are usually required to issue IRS Form 1099 to plaintiffs for the total settlement amount unless the settlement qualifies for an exemption. To protect your tax position, it’s crucial to negotiate tax language in the settlement agreement to explicitly state the tax treatment of the settlement and address the issuance of Form 1099. By addressing these details upfront, you can avoid potential tax complications.

Strategies to Minimize Tax Burden

While the tax implications of lawsuit settlements may seem overwhelming, there are strategies that plaintiffs can employ to minimize their tax burden. These strategies may include proper allocation of damages, strategic negotiation of the settlement agreement, and careful consideration of the timing of payments and reporting. Working closely with a knowledgeable tax advisor can help ensure that you maximize your tax benefits and minimize any potential tax liabilities associated with your settlement.

Seeking Expert Guidance

Given the complexity and ever-changing nature of tax laws, seeking expert guidance is advisable when navigating the tax implications of lawsuit settlements. A qualified tax professional can assist you in understanding the specific taxation rules and regulations that apply to your case, ensuring that you meet your tax obligations while optimizing your tax position. With their guidance, you can navigate the intricacies of tax reporting and make informed decisions to minimize your tax burden.


Taxation of lawsuit settlements is a complex area that requires careful consideration and expert guidance. Understanding the origin of the claim, differentiating between tax-free and taxable damages, and properly reporting attorney fees and other settlement components are crucial to ensure compliance with federal and state income tax laws. In many circumstances, the Plaintiff Recovery Trust may assist in minimizing the tax burden.

One should take proactive steps to optimize one's tax position and always seek professional tax advice to confidently and competently navigate the tax implications of lawsuit settlement taxation.

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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