In structured settlements, injury compensation is paid in installments over years rather than as a lump sum up front. It has long been argued that arrangements of this sort should be strongly favored by public policy: many accident settlements are premised on the need to cover years of needed therapy or future income lost through disability, and if it’s spent down too quickly through mishandling or “lottery winner syndrome”, the victim could wind up an expensive public charge. For reasons of this sort, structured settlements have been accorded highly favorable tax treatment.
Then an industry sprang up that offered to turn structured settlements into quick cash on the barrel, a choice that many lawsuit beneficiaries might be tempted to make (or might make after being leaned on by family members). Although laws often require that conversions of this sort be submitted for review to a court, judicial review may be cursory in the absence of adversary process to call attention to the potential drawbacks of a conversion. Not only has the structured-settlement-conversion industry managed to thrive, but somehow, as Shaun Martin notes, Congress has even been prevailed on to bestow favorable tax treatment on its doings — the same doings that tend to undermine the public benefits thought to arise from the original tax-favored structured settlement. More details are to be found in this decision, PDF, in which an appeals court recently sided with the factoring companies in a series of Fresno, California disputes (also discussed at this new blog on structured settlements, via Dan Schwartz).
Tax incentives that encourage lottery-winner syndrome? To paraphrase what Martin says, it’s almost as if someone was managing to work the system.