If you have been involved in a lawsuit, your focus is likely on recovery, meeting deadlines, discussing your options with your attorney, and how the entire process has affected your family. You have suffered a loss of some kind, whether lost time at work, pain and suffering, or medical bills stacking up. The light at the end of the tunnel is the compensation you hope will cover your expenses and what you need to put your life back together. What you might not have anticipated, however, is that any award you might receive could be considered taxable income by the federal government.
To make matters more confusing, not all settlements are taxable, while others are. Since many lawsuits are multi-faceted, the issue might not be simple. Without an attorney familiar with how damages are awarded, you might lose a significant chunk of what was supposed to bring stability back to your life. At the Levin Firm, we work closely with our clients to protect their rights. When discussing your case, consulting a personal injury attorney about taxation should be a main concern from the initial consultation until the case resolves.
Awards and Settlements
The result of a lawsuit is to compensate the wronged party for damages, which almost always happens through monetary means. The money at the end of the process will pay off medical expenses, property damage, and might alleviate some pain and suffering. There are two typical ways a victim receives compensation: settlement or court award.
A judge may order the wrongdoer to pay the victim for damages in a jury trial after hearing the evidence and determining fair compensation.
Through the settlement process, both parties reach an agreement through discussion and mediation. Without a jury trial’s lengthy and expensive process, a settlement might offer you more control and expedite the resolution of your claim. Most personal injury lawsuits never reach a jury trial and settle.
The damages awarded are still significant, and without the delay of multiple hearings, selecting a jury, or relying on a judge’s ruling, which may be unpredictable. Settlements give both parties more control and can still result in significant compensation.
In the eyes of the IRS, however, there is no distinction between a settlement and a court award; you are still responsible for paying the taxes on compensation received.
What Is Taxable?
Some forms of compensation are not taxable income, while others are. Due to the nature of a lawsuit—especially personal injury—many different elements go into arguing your case. For example, if you have been hurt in a slip and fall accident, you may suffer a traumatic brain injury, broken wrist, and other damage and miss time at work due to your recovery.
Your attorney might have argued your case with a need to compensate you for lost wages, a permanent disability affecting your livelihood, and pain and suffering due to your recovery and the stress of putting your life back together. Many elements of what you receive compensation for impact how much you owe for taxes on your award.
Income Tax on Settlements
Income Tax covers money earned for work, so money received for lost time at work and future earnings is considered income and taxable by the government. Compensation for your physical or intangible damages, such as pain, suffering, and stress related to the incident, are not viewed as taxable by the IRS.
Here is a list of what the government considers taxable:
- Interest on monetary awards
- Payments for lost wages and profits
- Damages for patent or copyright infringement
- Compensation for breach of contract
- Money received for settlement of pension rights
- Punitive damages
The IRS’s tax exemptions are varied and difficult to navigate without someone accustomed to tax codes, such as an accountant or tax attorney. Ensure any award is itemized to show what the compensation covers to determine what is taxable and exempt.
What Isn’t Taxable in a Personal Injury Award
In short, personal injury settlements are not taxable if they are related to observable physical harm. U.S. Code establishes what damages the federal government will tax.
However, if the resulting psychological or emotional distress due to the claim (other than resulting from physical injury or sickness) made you sick, you may need to pay taxes on that amount. The exception to this rule is if the physical injury caused the emotional distress. So a personal injury case would more likely yield tax-free compensation for the effects of stress than a case involving the emotional stress of dealing with a defamation case or copyright infringement.
However, some factors can reduce your tax liability, such as how much you already paid for medical expenses for emotional distress not already deducted. Also, medical expenses for emotional distress that were already deducted, but provided no tax benefit, are tax-exempt.
Different Damage Claims
With various damages compensated in each claim, your attorney can push for a higher percentage of the settlement to go towards tax-exempt conditions rather than taxable ones. Your attorney should negotiate the settlement to reflect the distribution of compensation rather than a lump sum for the IRS to interpret. Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 61 states that all income is taxable “unless a specific exception exists from whatever source derived unless exempted by another section of the code.”
A little planning and preparation go a long way regarding how exposed your settlement is to taxation. Your tax burden is subjective, even if clearly outlined in your settlement, which is why your attorney must act diligently to define each portion of your settlement to avoid an auditor’s subjective review, exposing you to unexpected taxes and penalties.
Wiggle room can affect your tax liability greatly, especially when trying to establish if sickness or further injury was due to the circumstances of the claim or for reasons not supported by injury related to the claim. For example, a medical condition made worse by the events of the claim, such as a TBI being exacerbated by a slip and fall, will yield different results than a worsening medical condition not directly related to the injury or illness.
Your attorney will be able to help you support this information in your claim, and you can present it to the IRS in the event of a query or audit. The IRS will consider the payer’s intent regarding what will be considered taxable and non-taxable in a settlement.
It might surprise people getting a settlement that they are responsible for taxation on the gross settlement amount, not just what the claimant receives. Most personal injury attorneys work on contingency, meaning a percentage of the settlement will pay the attorney for their services in recovering compensation.
If you agreed to pay 30 percent to your attorney out of a $120,000 settlement, they would receive $36,000, but you might need to pay taxes on the full $120,000.
The IRS Has Final Say
The IRS can review the language of your settlement and what you agreed to, and it might not hold water regarding what the IRS determines as taxable. Your attorney can clarify the information in your settlement paperwork, but the IRS ultimately makes the decision. Before you sign a settlement, consider and weigh tax liability, or the damages you fought long and hard for might take a significant tax hit and fail to cover your losses.
What Makes Tax Considerations Important?
A lawsuit is a long and often stressful process that you may start with a readiness to fight, but as you progress, you might only hope for a relatively painless resolution. Whether preparing for a jury trial or pursuing repeated negotiations with opposing counsel, you are likely dealing with other challenges that complicate the process.
Whether recovering from injury, sickness, libel, defamation, or any other claim, your mind might focus more on survival and getting to the next day. Paying medical bills, supporting your family, and keeping current with bills is your priority. What happens with tax liability and how the IRS will assess your settlement may rightly not be on your radar.
What you owe in taxes poses a serious threat to what you keep from your settlement once the documents are signed, and your lawyers get paid. Without carefully considering what your settlement means for tax liability, you could be saddled with more unnecessary problems.
Discussing your tax liability with your attorney will allow you to avoid unforeseen liability and hardship. Your settlement is supposed to help you rebuild your life, not cause more anxiety and stress on top of what you have already experienced. Your attorney will understand how to approach your settlement based on experience, tax laws, and other resources that might be difficult for the layperson to interpret.
Contact a Personal Injury Lawyer for More Information
If you are considering a lawsuit due to personal injury or professional damages, you need a personal injury lawyer to fight for you and your recovery. A lawyer can help you with your claim and guide your decisions, especially concerning expense, tax liability, and how to protect your rights. A lawsuit can cause confusion and stress, but with a lawyer can protect and inform you every step of the way.