Saturday, May 21, 2011

Structured Settlement Payments and Getting Your Facts Straight

A structured settlement is a financial arrangement wherein someone receives payment on a structured basis.  This arrangement was created to the mutual benefit of both the one receiving and the one paying the settlement.  These payments are also set up to reduce the financial burden placed on the insurance companies if they had to pay the full amount upfront.  If you were awarded $1,000,000 for example and the insurance company was forced to pay this all at once it would pose a large burden.  Settlements are arranged so the insurance company can pay you over time.  As a reward for accepting these structured payments you will end up receiving a greater sum of money because you earn interest in the money yet to be paid. In this way the settlement is designed to help the liability holder pay off the compensation over an agreeable period of time, be aware of this if you want to purchase structured settlements.

Now that you know how the structured settlement benefits the liability holder it is also important to know how it benefits the one receiving the settlement as well.  If you are the one who has won the settlement you can structure the income in a variety of ways to meet your current and future needs.  This is done because any time there is a lawsuit the amount the offended party is seeking is usually ridiculously high.  This is done to incentivize the defendant to see that it will cost more in legal fees and if they were to lose and have to pay the huge amount it may be better to offer a settlement.

So an amount is agreed upon from the defendants accountants and the offer is made to the plaintiff.  Here is where some negotiating may take place on the specified amount but once the value is agreed upon the lawsuit is dropped and a settlement is arranged.  Often times you will hear of big corporations who were being sued and then they ‘settled out of court.’  This just means they offered the one suing them a sum of money in exchange for dropping the lawsuit.

If you are offered a settlement you can choose to receive a large amount upfront or receive payments over time.  By choosing payments over time you will receive more money in the end but it comes to you on a scheduled plan, say $3,000 per month for 20 years.  This may seem like a great option but often times you can make more if you wisely invest the larger upfront payment.  But now that you have the facts you will be able to make a better decision when you structure your settlement.

Structured settlement factoring transaction

A structured settlement factoring transaction describes the selling of future structured settlement payments (or, more accurately, rights to receive the future structured settlement payments). People who receive structured settlement payments may decide at some point that they need more money in the short term than the periodic payment provides over time. An example would be the payment of personal injury damages over time instead of in a lump sum at settlement. The reasons are varied but can include unforeseen medical expenses for oneself or a dependent, the need for improved housing or transportation, education expenses and the like. To meet this need, the structured settlement recipient can sell (or, less commonly, encumber) all or part of their future periodic payments for a present lump sum.

Structured settlements experienced an explosion in use beginning in the 1980s.[1] The growth is most likely attributable to the favorable federal income tax treatment such settlements receive as a result of the 1982 amendment of the tax code to add § 130.[2] [3] Internal Revenue Code § 130 provides, inter alia, substantial tax incentives to insurance companies that establish “qualified” structured settlements.[4] There are other advantages for the original tort defendant (or casualty insurer) in settling for payments over time, in that they benefit from the time value of money (most demonstrable in the fact that an annuity can be purchased to fund the payment of future periodic payments, and the cost of such annuity is far less than the sum total of all payments to be made over time). Finally, the tort plaintiff also benefits in several ways from a structured settlement, notably in the ability to receive the periodic payments from an annuity that gains investment value over the life of the payments, and the settling plaintiff receives the total payments, including that “inside build-up” value, tax-free.[5]

However, a substantial downside to structured settlements comes from their inherent inflexibility.[6] To take advantage of the tax benefits allotted to defendants who choose to settle cases using structured settlements, the periodic payments must be set up to meet basic requirements [set forth in IRC 130(c)]. Among other things, the payments must be fixed and determinable, and cannot be accelerated, deferred, increased or decreased by the recipient.[7] For many structured settlement recipients, the periodic payment stream is their only asset. Therefore, over time and as recipients’ personal situations change in ways unpredicted at the settlement table, demand for liquidity options rises. To offset the liquidity issue, most structured settlement recipients, as a part of their total settlement, will receive an immediate sum to be invested to meet the needs not best addressed through the use of a structured settlement. Beginning in the late 1980s, a few small financial institutions started to meet this demand and offer new flexibility for structured settlement payees.[8] In April 2009, financial writer Suze Orman wrote in a syndicated column [1] that selling future structured settlement payments "is tempting but it's typically not smart."

Congress enacted law to provide special tax breaks for payments received by tort victims in structured settlements, and for the companies that funded them. The payments were tax free, whereas if the tort victim had been given a lump sum and invested it themselves, the payments from those investments would be taxable.

Companies liked structured settlements because it allowed them to avoid taxes to a certain extent, and plaintiffs liked them because it allowed them to receive tax-free payments of what became, over time, a much larger amount of money than the original amount paid out by the settling party. Such settlements were also considered an especially good idea for minors, as they held the money safe for adulthood and ensured that youth would not find the money wasted or ill-spent. “Despite the best intentions of plaintiffs, lump sum settlement awards are often quickly dissipated because of excessive spending, poor financial management, or a combination of both. Statistics showed that twenty-five to thirty percent of all cash awards are exhausted within two months, and ninety percent are exhausted within five years.” Andrada, “Structured Settlements – The Assignability Problem,” 9 S. Cal. Interdis. L.J. 465, 468 (Spring 2000).

An explanation of IRS Code section 130 was given during discussions of possible taxation of companies that bought future payments under those structured settlements. “By enacting the PPSA, Congress expressed its support of structured settlements, and sought to shield victims and their families from pressures to prematurely dissipate their recoveries.” 145 Cong. Rec. S52281-01 (daily ed. May 13, 1999) (statement of Sen. Chaffee).

Congress was willing to afford such tax advantages based on the belief that the loss in income taxes would be more than made up by lower expenditures on public assistance programs for those who suffered significant injuries. A strict requirement for a structured settlement to qualify for this tax break was that the tort victim was barred from accessing their periodic payments before they came due. It was for this reason that the annuity had to be owned by another who had control over it. The tort victim could not be seen to have “constructive receipt” of the annuity funds prior to their periodic payments. If the tort victim could cash in the annuity at any time, it was possible that the IRS might find constructive receipt.

“Congress conditioned the favorable rules on a requirement that the periodic payments cannot be accelerated, deferred, increased or decreased by the injured person. Both the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committee Reports stated that the periodic payments as personal injury damages are still excludable from income only if the recipient is not in constructive receipt of or does not have the current economic benefit of the sum required to produce the periodic payments.”

Testimony of Tax Legislative Counsel Joseph M. Mikrut to the Subcommittee on Oversight of the Committee of Ways and Means, March 18, 1999. “These factoring transactions directly undermine the policy objective underlying the structured settlement tax regime, that of protecting the long term financial needs of injuries persons . . . “ (Id.)

Mr. Mikrut was testifying in favor of imposing a punitive tax on factoring companies that engaged in pursuit of structured settlement payments. Despite the use of non-assignment clauses in annuity contracts to secure the tax advantages for tort victims. companies cropped up that tried to advantage of these individuals in ”factoring” transactions, purchasing their periodic payments in return for a deeply discounted lump sump payment. Congress felt that factoring company purchases of structured settlement payments “so directly subvert the Congressional policy underlying structured settlements and raise such serious concerns for the injured victims,” that bills were proposed in both the Senate and the House to penalize companies which engage in such transactions. (Id.)

Before the enactment of IRC 5891, which became effective on July 1, 2002, some states regulated the transfer of structured settlement payment rights, while others did not. Most states that regulated transfers at this time followed a general pattern, substantially similar to the present day process which is mandated in IRC 5891 (see below for more details of the post-2002 process). However, the majority of the transfers processed from 1988 to 2002 were not court ordered.[9] After negotiating the terms of the transaction (including the payments to be sold and the price to be paid for those payments), a formal purchase contract was executed, effecting an assignment of the subject payments upon closing. Part of this assignment process also included the grant of a security interest in the structured settlement payments, to secure performance of the seller’s obligations. Filing a public lien based on that security agreement created notice of this assignment and interest. The insurance company issuing the structured settlement annuity checks was typically not given actual notice of the transfer, due to antagonism by the insurance industry against factoring and transfer companies. Many annuity issuers were concerned that factoring transactions, which were not contemplated when Congress enacted IRC 130, might upset the tax treatment of qualified assignments. HR 2884 (discussed below) resolved this question for annuity issuers.