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Guide to Legal Settlement Taxes

Don’t Get Taxed on Your Win: A Guide to Legal Settlement Taxes

Winning a legal settlement can be a life-changing event. But before you celebrate with a shopping spree, it’s crucial to understand the tax implications. This guide unpacks the complexities of how legal settlements and associated legal fees are treated by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Taxation of Legal Settlements: Not All Wins Are Tax-Free

The tax treatment of your settlement hinges on the nature of your claim. Here’s a breakdown:

  • Physical Injuries or Sickness: Generally, these settlements are tax-exempt. So, if you receive compensation for a car accident, medical malpractice, or other physical injuries, you won’t owe taxes on the principal amount.
  • Non-Physical Injuries: Settlements for emotional distress, discrimination (unless unlawful), or damage to reputation are typically taxable as income replacement.

Here are some specific scenarios to consider:

  • Wrongful Death: This is considered a physical injury, making the settlement (excluding punitive damages) tax-free.
  • Emotional Distress: While emotional distress itself isn’t tax-exempt, if it stems from a physical injury (and medical expenses were incurred), a portion of the settlement may be excluded from taxes, up to the amount paid for medical care.
  • Employment Discrimination: Settlements for emotional distress alongside discrimination claims are generally taxable. However, back pay awarded under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) might have special tax treatment (see legal fees below).
  • Unpaid Wages: Back pay, severance pay, and overtime are considered taxable income subject to payroll taxes.
  • Punitive Damages: These are always taxable, meant to punish wrongdoing, not compensate for losses.

Remember: If your settlement includes both taxable and non-taxable damages, it’s crucial to allocate them correctly. Imagine winning $50,000 for a work injury, with $5,000 for lost wages (taxable) and $45,000 for pain and suffering (non-taxable). The IRS needs this breakdown for proper tax assessment.

Legal Fees: Can You Deduct Them?

The deductibility of legal fees depends on whether they’re for personal or business purposes.

  • Personal Legal Fees: Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017, most personal legal expenses, including those for personal injury lawsuits, are not deductible through 2025. However, exceptions exist for specific claims like unlawful discrimination and whistleblower awards. These fees are deducted “above the line,” reducing your taxable income.
  • Business Legal Fees: Thankfully, legal fees incurred for business purposes are generally deductible. This includes defending your business, collecting income, or acquiring assets. You can deduct these expenses on your business tax return.

Tricky Scenario: Splitting Legal Costs

Sometimes, legal expenses cover both personal and business matters. Here, the IRS requires an allocation. Only the portion related to your business or income-producing activity is deductible. For example, if a lawsuit involves both a personal injury claim and lost business income, only the fees associated with lost income might be deductible. The allocation method can vary based on time spent on each issue, claim value, or other reasonable justifications. Proper documentation is key.

Supreme Court Ruling on Attorney Fees:

The Supreme Court’s decision in Commissioner v. Banks affects how contingent attorney fees (a percentage of your settlement) are taxed. The full settlement amount is considered your income, even if a portion goes directly to your lawyer. This means you cannot deduct the fees as a miscellaneous itemized deduction (for tax years 2018-2025).

Seeking Professional Help is Smart!

Navigating the tax complexities of legal settlements can be overwhelming. Consulting a tax professional is highly recommended. They can analyze your specific situation and help you optimize your tax position. Remember, a little planning now can save you a significant amount of money later.

Bonus Tip: Don’t forget to factor in potential state income taxes that might apply to your settlement.

By understanding these tax implications, you can make informed financial decisions with your legal settlement. Remember, knowledge is power, especially when it comes to your hard-earned money!

JS Morlu LLC is a top-tier accounting firm based in Woodbridge, Virginia, with a team of highly experienced and qualified CPAs and business advisors. We are dedicated to providing comprehensive accounting, tax, and business advisory services to clients throughout the Washington, D.C. Metro Area and the surrounding regions. With over a decade of experience, we have cultivated a deep understanding of our clients’ needs and aspirations. We recognize that our clients seek more than just value-added accounting services; they seek a trusted partner who can guide them towards achieving their business goals and personal financial well-being.
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