With the countless web sites, advertisements, legal jargon and complex issues surrounding structured settlements, it is easy to become overwhelmed and frustrated when you are simply searching for answers and straightforward information. Whether you’ve received a structured settlement already, or if you are just trying to better understand them, you’ve come to the right place for sifting through the messy details.
What is a structured settlement?
A structured settlement is a series of guaranteed payments (annuities) made over a certain period of time and is usually the result of an injury settlement or another situation in which you are awarded access to a substantial amount of money. It is the alternative to accepting an upfront lump sum.
Structured settlements are individualized plans meant to help you cover present and future expenses. Working closely with an experienced attorney can help you to determine an effective structured settlement to give you the security of a fixed income over a set period of time.
Example – how it might work: Melissa is injured in a serious car accident and is now unable to work for the next year. As a single parent, she has two young children to care for, not to mention her mounting medical expenses. She knows that she has to pay $25,000 in medical bills at the present time, and she knows that she will need surgery in a few months that will cost an additional $20,000. Her structured settlement can be set up to give her a lump sum to pay the present medical expenses right now, and be structured to give her an additional lump sum at the time of her surgery. It can also give her additional monthly payments equal to her salary for the year that she is unable to work, including an additional monthly payment to hire someone to help her care for her children while she is recovering from her injuries and medical procedures. Once Melissa goes back to work, monthly payments might cease or be reduced.
Types of Structured Settlements
Designated Period / Period Certain Annuities: Annuities with a designated period of time for the payments to be paid out. They can be made monthly, quarterly, semi-annually, annually, etc. Upon your death, all remaining payments are made to you beneficiary.
Life Annuity: Periodic payments for a guaranteed number of years (based on your life expectancy) or for life, whichever is up first. Again, the beneficiary receives any remaining payments should you die before the full amount is paid.
Temporary Life Annuity: Pay you for a designated number of years if you are still living, so your annuity ends when you die. There’s no provision for a beneficiary to collect remaining payments.
Life Contingent Lump Sum: You’ll receive a lump sum, provided you are alive on the due date. If you die before this date, your beneficiary is not entitled to the amount.
Lump sum: You can set it up to receive the lump sum on a particular date, say, fifteen years from now. Your beneficiary will receive the lump sum on the future date if you have died before then.
Though structured settlements contain a great degree of flexibility during the decision-making process (how much money do I need now, how much money will I need in the future, what are my present needs?), once you agree to the terms and sign the agreement, you can NOT alter the provisions. It is highly recommended that you have an attorney and trusted broker help you to determine the best payment methods for your situation. You might want to ask the broker to come up with several different scenarios and payment schedules so you can get a comprehensive look at your options.
So, even if your situation changes down the road, your payments will not. That’s why it is extremely important to be thorough and careful when creating your payment schedule.
Unfortunately, life has a way of throwing off our well-thought-out and well-intentioned plans. Even if you’ve done all your homework, shopped around for the best broker, interviewed many attorneys and carefully planned an effective payment schedule, you may still incur a large unexpected expense.
Should this kind of situation arise, and you are strapped for cash, you would love to be able to make some adjustments to your settlement plan. Of course, this is prohibited. But you do have another option. You might consider selling a portion or all of your remaining structured settlement payments to an interested third party.
Deciding to sell
Before you decide to sell, think about what you want/need the money for. An immediate medical expense, buying a home or the decision to go back to school are usually considered good reasons. Examine your needs and the needs of your family as well. Perhaps you want a new home. Do you have children approaching college age? If so, you’ll not only incur significant tuition expenses, you’ll also have less of a need for a larger home.
Selling your payments will result in a loss from the full amount. Consider whether or not it is important for you to sacrifice the security and future total amount before you make a decision. You will have to understand the implications, benefits and pitfalls so you can feel comfortable making an informed decision.
Will I get the full amount that I would receive over a period of time?
No. The amount you would receive over a period of time is calculated by adding interest to the principal amount. Instead, you may receive the present-day value of the amount. This present-day value may have to be further discounted to cover the costs to do the deal. The rest will be sent to you in one lump sum. You might want to shop around to find out where you can get the best deal.
To ensure that you will not be taken advantage of in this delicate process, the government introduced a new federal law in 2002 that requires you to seek court approval when you sell your structured settlement. This law works in conjunction with state laws to direct how the transaction will be completed.
Not only does this law protect you, the seller, it also helps the insurance companies who fear that they will face tax consequences as a result of the sale. The law states very clearly that annuity owners and providers do not and will not owe taxes as a result of this transaction. This breaks down the barrier that you might normally face from a reluctant insurance company.
You do not have to sell the entire remaining amount, or any particular amount, if you so wish. Here are your selling options:
Full amount: The purchaser calculates the present-day value of the payments and offers a lump sum
Part of the payments: Only a specific number of the future payments are sold at their present-day value
Percentages: You may sell a percentage of each payment and keep the remaining balance for yourself
Pitfalls of Selling
Shady brokers. Selling your payments will require you to contact a broker who can help take care of the proceedings. This means that you might run into some game-playing and/or manipulation tactics if you happen to be dealing with a shady broker. They may promise you a high quote, only to come back and say that they can’t do the deal as is unless they get more money from you. Other brokers may claim to be “qualified” when they have only completed a week-long course. Make sure you’re dealing with a broker who has a couple of years experience in structured settlements and is a member of the Better Business Bureau.
You end up losing money. As mentioned earlier, you will not receive the total amount you’d receive over time if you opt for selling your payments. Therefore you lose some money and the security of future payments.
It takes time. Though the federal law requiring court oversight in these proceedings helps protect you, it also delays you from receiving the money as soon as you might have hoped. If you need the money right away, this could frustrate you and hinder your plans for prompt payment. Normally once you decide to sell your payments the process can take as little as 4 weeks and as long as 12 weeks to obtain the court order and for you to receive your lump sum.
Benefits of Selling
The main benefit of selling your structured settlement payments is, obviously, that you will receive a lump sum of cash for which you can utilize in any way you choose. This gives you increased flexibility in using your money, and can provide peace of mind if you have an immediate expense that couldn’t be paid any other way.