Attorney Fee Structures

You already know that structured settlements help maximize settlement value for your clients by providing a steady, low-risk source of income with long-term tax advantages. But did you know lawyers can structure their attorney fees?

Using attorney fee structures, plaintiff attorneys can defer their fees and income taxes on those fees for personal injury cases as well as many other types of cases. An attorney fee structure allows an attorney to set up a personally tailored retirement plan without the monetary and age restrictions or other drawbacks of a qualified plan. A lawyer can defer taxes on his or her fees as well as the interest that it earns until the year in which a distribution is actually received from the fee structure.

Structured attorney fees work very much like a non-qualified deferred compensation plan. The taxes that would be otherwise paid on the fee earned at the time the case is settled are deferred, and that money grows without tax on the growth. When distributions are made, the entire amount distributed during a year is taxable for that year. Based upon a taxpayer’s tax bracket, there may be some distinct tax advantages to entering into this type of arrangement as opposed to being taxed on the entire fee in the year it was earned and investing it after tax.

The fee structure can help a lawyer avoid the highest tax brackets by leveling off income spikes due to large fees and spreading the income out over several years. To explore the tax benefits, consider for example, the highest marginal income tax bracket exceeds 30% under the current law for married couples filing jointly. An attorney who otherwise would have an unusually high income in the current year, but elects to spread the income over several years, may avoid paying taxes in the highest bracket or at the very least will defer taxation over a number of future years. Couple the tax savings with guaranteed earnings on the deferred funds, and the benefits of an attorney fee structure become very obvious.

Fee structures can be done by one attorney in a firm, without the requirement that other attorneys and employees participate, as would be the case in a qualified retirement plan. Also, there is no limit as to the amount of income deferred. By comparison, there are statutory limits to the amount one can defer in a qualified retirement plan. Even if the attorney participates in a qualified retirement plan or individual retirement account (IRA), he or she may still defer additional income through an attorney fee structure. Unlike traditional retirement plans, there is no requirement of annual deferments. An added bonus is that the attorney fee structure annuity has enhanced creditor and judgment protection other investments can’t provide.

In summary, a fee structure allows a plaintiff lawyer to not only defer receipt of (and tax on) his fees until he receives them, be he can have the deferred fees invested, and have the income produced from it also taxable over time. A lawyer may want to consider structuring his fees as part of his or her own income tax planning, financial planning, and estate planning. A Synergy settlement planner can assist you and your tax planner to decide if a fee structure is appropriate for you.

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"In my business as a plaintiff’s products liability lawyer, everything begins and ends with our clients. In our firm we never handle a significant case without the assistance of Synergy. Why? Very simple: we trust Synergy with our clients. Yes, Synergy only works with plaintiffs. And yes, they are highly technically proficient and know this business cold. But what makes them different from others is that they listen to our clients, make our clients comfortable with complex issues, and always put the interests of the client first. In my opinion, because of their unique ability to handle people with sincerity and compassion in their time of crisis, they stand head and shoulders above his competition."

Richard Newsome
Newsome Law Firm, Past President of Florida Justice Association

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