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Legal Fee Tax Deduction Gets Easier

Since 2018, it’s been tough to deduct legal fees, and some plaintiffs in contingent fee cases are even taxed on their gross recoveries, not net after legal fees. Creativity is needed in this new age, since sometimes the rules seem to say you shouldn’t be deducting fees at all. Fortunately, the mechanics of deducting legal fees in employment, whistleblower, and civil rights cases have been improved, at long last.

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Close up of an attorney's hand holding a pen and using a laptop to calculate taxes.

How the IRS Views Structured Legal Fees

All lawyers pay taxes and know that legal fees are income. They are ordinary income and even subject to self-employment taxes. But what about timing? Much in the tax law is about timing. A classic tenet of tax-planning is to try to defer income and to accelerate deductions. For generations, tax lawyers have explored all manner of tax-deferral strategies. According to the IRS, you have income for tax purposes when you have an unqualified, vested right to receive it. Asking for payment later doesn’t change that. The idea is to prevent taxpayers from deliberately manipulating their income. A classic example is a bonus check available in December, where the employee asks to have the employer hold it until Jan. 1. Normal cash accounting suggests that the bonus is not income until paid, but the employer tried to pay in December and made the check available. To the IRS, that makes the bonus income in December, even though it is not collected until January.

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