Sometimes when a plaintiff settles a case for a large sum of money, the defendant, the plaintiff's attorney, or a financial planner consulted in association with the settlement, will propose paying the settlement in installments over time rather than in a single lump sum. When a settlement is paid in this manner it is called a "structured settlement". Often the structured settlement will be created through the purchase of one or more annuities, which guarantee the future payments.
A structured settlement can provide for payment in pretty much any schedule the parties choose. For example, the settlement may be paid in annual installments over a number of years, or it may be paid in periodic lump sums every few years.
One significant advantage of a structured settlement is tax avoidance. With appropriate set-up, a structured settlement may significantly reduce the plaintiff's tax obligations as a result of the settlement, and may in some cases be tax-free.
A structured settlement can protect a plaintiff from having settlement funds dissipated, when they are necessary to pay for future care or needs. Sometimes a structured settlement can help protect a plaintiff from himself - some people simply aren't good with money, or can't say no to relatives who want to "share the wealth", and even a large settlement can be rapidly exhausted. Minors may benefit from a structured settlement as well, such as a settlement which provides for certain costs during their youth, an additional disbursement to pay for college or other educational expenses, and then one or more disbursements in adulthood. An injured person who has long-term special needs may benefit from having periodic lump sums with which to purchase medical equipment or modified vehicles.
In some situations, it will be better for a severely disabled plaintiff to set up a special needs trust, rather than entering into a lump sum or structured settlement. Any plaintiff who is receiving, or expects to receive, Medicaid or other public assistance, or the guardian or conservator entering into a settlement on behalf of a disabled ward, should consult with a disabilities financial planner about their situation before choosing any particular settlement option or structure.
Some people who enter into structured settlements feel trapped by the periodic payments. They may wish to purchase a new home, or other expensive item, yet be unable to muster the resources because they can't borrow against future payments under their settlement.
Some people will do better by accepting a lump sum settlement, and investing it themselves. Many standard investments will give a greater long-term return than the annuities used in structured settlements.
If you have a structured settlement, you may have been approached by a company interested in purchasing your settlement, or may be curious about selling your settlement in return for a lump sum buyout. About two thirds of states have enacted laws which restict the sale of structured settlements, and tax-free structured settlements are also subject to federal restrictions on their sale to a third party. Also, some insurance companies will not assign or transfer annuities to third parties, to discourage the sale of structured settlements. As a consequence, depending upon where you live and the terms of your annuities, it may not be possible for you to sell your settlement.
Keep in mind that companies which buy structured settlements intend to profit from their purchase, and sometimes their offers may seem quite low. You may benefit from approaching more than one company in relation to the sale of your settlement, to make sure that you obtain the highest payoff. You also want to be sure that the company which wants to buy your settlement is established, well-funded, and reputable - you don't want a fly-by-night outfit to obtain the rights to your annuities but to disappear or go bankrupt before paying you the buyout money. You may have to go to court to get a judge to approve the buyout. It is usually a good idea to consult with a lawyer before entering into an agreement to sell your settlement.
Any person entering into a structured settlement should be on guard for potential exploitation in relation to the settlement:
Annuities can be highly profitable for insurance companies, and they often carry very large commissions. It is important to ensure that the commissions charged in setting up a structured settlement don't consume an inappropriate percentage of its principal.
Sometimes, after negotiating a particular settlement figure, the defense will overstate the value of a structured settlement. As a result the plaintiff, in accepting the settlement, in fact obtains a significantly lower dollar value than was agreed upon. Some defendants have nominally paid the full amount of the settlement, knowing that they would later obtain significant rebates from the annuity companies they used. Plaintiffs should consider compariing the fees and commissions charged for similar settlement packages by a variety of insurance companies, to make sure that they are in fact getting full value. A plaintiff may wish to make it a condition of the settlement that the defendant will actually pay the full value of the settlement in setting up the structured settlement, and that any rebates received by the defendant for annuities included in the settlement be payable to the plaintiff.
There have been cases where the plaintiff's lawyer is also in the insurance business, and sets up a structured settlement on behalf of a client without disclosing that the attorney is purchasing the annuities from his own business, or is pocketing a large commission on the annuities. Similarly, there have been situations where the plaintiff's attorney has referred the client to a particular financial planner to set up a structured settlement, without disclosing that the financial planner will be paying the attorney a referral fee in relation to the client's account. Make sure that you know what financial interest, if any, your lawyer has in relation to any financial services sold or recommended by the lawyer.
It is unfortunate, but many people who receive large personal injury or workers' compensation settlements will have a shortened life expectancy as a result of their injuries. It is important to consider life expectancy in association with any structured settlement, and to consider whether it is appropriate to enter into an annuity where payments will cease upon death. Sometimes it will make sense to insist upon an annuity that pays a minimum number of payments, or one that will pay a balance into the plaintiff's estate, such that the value of the settlement is not lost to an insurance company upon the plaintiff's untimely death.
Using Multiple Insurance Companies
For larger settlements, it often makes sense to purchase annuities for a structured settlement from several different companies, dividing the settlement between those companies. This can provide you with protection in the event that a company that issued annuities for your settlement package goes into bankruptcy - even in the event that one of the companies defaults in part or in full on your settlement payments, you would still receive full payment from the other companies.