The Five Key IRS Rules of Taxation for Lawsuit Settlements

Coming out on the winning side of a lawsuit as a plaintiff can be a gratifying feeling, especially if there is a financial settlement involved. There is likely a sense of both relief and vindication. Unfortunately, far too often people are in for a shock when they realize that they must pay taxes on the award. You can even be taxed on your attorney fees! However, a little tax planning can go a long way, especially if you do it before the settlement is finalized and the award is substantial. Below are the five key rules to know so you can make the right move.

  1. The Origin of the Claim Largely Determines the Tax Consequences
    The taxation of legal settlements is based on the origin or reason of the claim. For example, if you win a wrongful termination suit against an employer, your award will be taxed as both wages and likely some other income for whatever is allocated to emotional damages. On the other hand, if you sue the contractor who built your house for damage caused by his negligence, the settlement might not be deemed income at all and you could treat it as a reduction of the purchase price of the real asset. There are many exceptions in this area, and it always depends on the facts and circumstances of the case.
  2. Physical Injuries Produce Tax-Free Awards, but Emotional Distress and Damages Are Taxable
    Damages received for suits involving a physical injury or illness are tax-free. Suits for emotional distress and defamation are taxable, including the physical symptoms of emotional distress (gastrointestinal problems, etc.). Be careful as the latter can be ambiguous, so agreeing on the nature of a physical symptom as the cause or result of emotional distress is best done with the defendant before you finalize the case.
  3. Allocating Damages
    Legal disputes typically involve several issues and courses of conduct. As a result, settlements typically have multiple types of consideration, each with potentially different tax treatments. If the plaintiff and defendant both agree on the tax treatment before finalizing the case, then you can allocate the total damages to certain categories and save taxes. Such agreements are technically non-binding on the IRS, but they are rarely challenged.
  4. Attorney Fees 
    Plaintiffs who use a contingent fee lawyer are typically taxed on receiving 100 percent of the money recovered. This means you have to pay taxes even on the portion of your settlement that the lawyers keep as their fee. This is still the case even if your contingent fees are paid directly by the defendant. In clear cases of physical injury where the entire settlement is non-taxable, there’s no issue – but if your award is taxable, you’ll need to be careful.

    Take an example where you collect a contingent fee settlement for emotional distress and receive $200,000, with your lawyer taking 30 percent or $60,000. In this case, you’ll typically be liable for taxes on the entire $200,000 and not just the $140,000 you keep. To make matters worse, aside from legal fees in employment and certain whistleblower claims, there’s no corresponding deduction for legal fees. There are potential ways to mitigate this, but tax advice early in the process is key.

  5. Punitive Damages and Interest
    Generally, punitive damages and interest are always taxable. For example, take a case where you are hurt in an automobile crash and receive $100,000 in compensatory damages and another $3 million in punitive damages. The $100,000 is tax-free, whereas the $3 million is taxable.

    Interest is treated similarly. Even if you receive a tax-free type of settlement, but it took time to finalize the settlement through the pre- or post-judgement process, the interest you receive is taxable. Therefore, it is often advantageous to settle a case instead of having it go to judgement.

Conclusion

The taxation of legal settlements and awards are nuanced and largely depend on the facts and circumstances of the case at hand. There are, however, many opportunities through proper tax planning to minimize the tax consequences, but only if you are proactive and plan early in the process.


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