Despite unresolved issues, utilization of IRC 468B Qualified Settlement Funds (QSFs) in "single event" cases, as well as class action and mass tort cases, is expanding, and increasingly represents the preferred method for resolving complex personal injury claims, according to participants at the Third Annual QSF Symposium sponsored by Evolve Bank and Trust on November 14, 2014 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Various speakers estimated the number of QSF cases annually currently exceeds 2500, equally split between single event cases and class action/mass tort cases, increasing by 25% per year. This expansion has occurred as more settlement planning stakeholders learn about the advantages of QSFs - and despite single claimant QSF tax uncertainty.
Although Rev. Proc. 93-34 permits QSFs to make IRC 130 qualified assignments, and no tax authority exists prohibiting single claimant QSFs, structured settlement annuity providers currently refuse to accept single claimant QSFs which they broadly define to encompass claims by family members, plaintiff attorneys, lien holders and creditors.
Organized "to provide a forum for open dialogue that helps shape industry developments", the 2014 QSF Symposium completely avoided the single claimant controversy and focused instead on other important QSF and settlement planning issues.
Topics and Speakers
- Introduction and Welcome - Andrew Cook
- QSF Administrator Control Systems and Fraud Protection - Brian Berning
- QSF State Tax Issues - Mike May
- Tax Issues for Foreign Structured Settlement Assignment Companies - Jeremy Babener
- Calculating Settlement Awards - Chris Lordan
- QSF Settlement Planning Panel - Patrick Hindert (Moderator), Andrew Cook, Wendie Howland, Pi-Yi Mayo, Bryn Poland, Joseph Tombs.
- How New SEC Rules Impact QSF Money Market Fund Investments - John Rush.
- How Plaintiff Attorneys View QSFs - William Burns
- QSF Administrator Compensation Issues - Paige Balnum; Pi-Yi Mayo; Bryn Poland.
- QSF Attorney Fee Programs - Chris Shumate.
QSF Objectives and Benefits
In his legal treatise, "Qualified Settlement Funds and Section 468B", published in 2009, Robert Wood explains QSFs as follows: "Their primary objective is to gather and administer cash or assets and determine the amounts and exact nature of payments that the plaintiffs, attorneys, and other claimants will receive..... QSFs benefit both plaintiffs and defendants alike. They are separate entities for federal income tax purposes and are flexible and easy to establish."
Section 3.08B of "Structured Settlements and Periodic Payment Judgments" (S2P2J) summarizes the benefits of QSFs in more detail: "defendants obtain a binding release from liability by making a currently-deductible payment into a court or government-approved Fund; while claimants, who have no tax consequence as a result of this payment into a Fund, are then afforded as much time as they need to sort out important issues of their own, such as allocating settlement shares, obtaining court approvals for minors or other legally-disabled claimants, resolving liens (which sometimes involve complex pay-back and set-aside issues as to Medicaid and Medicare), and deciding on forms of distribution (whether cash, structured settlements, or special needs trusts that may be used to preserve eligibility for certain government benefits)."
QSFs reconfigure the traditional (ready; shoot; aim) settlement planning process:
- Needs assessment
so that needs assessment and settlement design follow the negotiation (and funding) steps rather than precede them.
- QSF Administrator - The QSF Symposium emphasized the important role of the QSF administrator as well as the services he or she may provide and/or require including: investment, expense and distribution management; tax reporting and filing; legal and regulatory compliance; and fraud control. The QSF administer appears best positioned to quarterback the QSF settlement planning team. An apparent need exists for more (and better qualified) QSF administrators.
- Life Care Planners and Case Managers - Life care planners and case managers are frequently overlooked in traditional settlement planning. Life care planners are rarely asked to revise their pre-trial and trial-focused life care plans to account for collateral sources or the actual amount of settlement funding. Case managers (who are separately certified) increasingly are retained to "monitor" settlement plans by providing post-settlement medical advice and services for serious personal injury victims.
- Compensation Issues - For QSFs to achieve their potential improvements for single event settlement planning, multiple compensation issues must still be addressed and resolved:
- Administrators - The QSF Symposium devoted one of its panels to administrator compensation issues, including: who pays their fee? what fee is appropriate for what services? and how should the fee be calculated (flat fee; per claimant fee; or fee based on QSF earnings)? Complicating these issues, many attorney QSF administrators play multiple roles (trustee; administrator) in addition to drafting QSF documents and making court appearances.
- Structured settlement brokers - In many single event QSFs, the plaintiff structured settlement broker plays key roles: 1) selecting and paying the QSF administrator; 2) performing "value added" settlement planning services as part of his/her contingent commission compensation. Not only do these arrangements create potential conflicts of interest ("needs based" selling determined by the needs of the broker and administrator), they also increase a broker's risk of loss in the the event of an unsuccessful structured settlement sale.
- Additional compensation issues arise when: 1) a case settles with no allowance for QSF expenses; 2) a case involves minors or incompetents requiring a guardian and court to approve QSF expenses; and also because 3) in the current low interest rate environment, QSF fees often exceed investment yields. Although not discussed during the Symposium, defense structured settlement brokers have opposed QSFs fearing a reduction or the elimination of their contingent commission compensation.
- Tax topics - The QSF Symposium featured three tax topics:
- State taxation - State taxation of QSFs is inconsistent with little guidance. Many states have not yet addressed QSF taxation. Potential penalties exist for failure to file including interest on any unpaid liability without any statute of limitations. QSF administrators are advised to follow a two step analysis: 1) can a specific state tax a QSF based upon the situs of the court or the administrator or the bank where funds are deposited? 2) assuming a filing obligation exists, how will a state tax a QSF - as a corporation or a trust?
- Foreign structured settlement assignment companies - Potential tax issues exist for defendants, plaintiffs and the foreign assignment company. Can a defendant deduct its payment to a foreign assignment company? When does a plaintiff receive payments for tax purposes and what is the character of those payments? Does the foreign assignment company recognize income when it receives an assignment payment? If yes, will it be considered active or passive income or does a treaty override exist?
- Structured attorney fees - When properly arranged, structured attorney fees allow a contingently-compensated attorney to defer portions of his or her compensation and pay tax upon receipt regardless of the type of case or whether the client receives a lump sum or periodic payments.
- Education issues - Single event QSF education is needed for plaintiff attorneys and judges who are still unfamiliar with the QSF concept. Among the most likely education providers are special needs attorneys who serve as QSF administrators or trustees and structured settlement brokers. In addition to litigating attorneys and judges, QSF educational targets should include other settlement planning stakeholders such as: liability insurers; settlement trustees, guardians; mediators; and life care planners.
Conclusion - Evolve's QSF Symposium offers a valuable and unique addition to the growing number of personal injury settlement planning conferences and educational resources. When Robert Wood's QSF legal treatise was published in 2009, he acknowledged his analysis "clearly enters unchartered ground". Congratulations to Chairman Andy Cook and Evolve Bank and Trust for helping to survey this unchartered QSF terrain by sponsoring an educational event specifically designed to promote discussion and exchange of ideas about QSF issues, standards and best practices.
For S2KM's complete coverage of 2014 structured settlement and settlement planning conferences, see the structured settlement wiki.