When Winning A Case Costs Your Client Money

The goal of lawyers who represent plaintiffs in personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits is to help the client.  But sometimes the receipt of proceeds from a lawsuit can actually cost your client money. 

How can that be?  If your client is receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and the settlement results in your client having more than $2000 in the bank your client loses his or her SSI payments.  More importantly, people who receive SSI usually receive Medicare benefits – and the loss of SSI for people under 65 will result in a loss of Medicare benefits.  So, you may "win" the case for your 45 year old previously disabled client and put $50,000 in her pocket, but without appropriate planning  she will lose her SSI benefit and her health insurance.  If she has a significant health issue while she is without insurance, she may end losing not only the balance of her personal injury settlement but also whatever she had before the litigation started.

What is a lawyer to do?  First, learn whether or not your client receives SSI and Medicare.  Second, understand how receipt of settlement proceeds will impact those benefits.  Third, determine if there is an appropriate way to structure the receipt of money to preserve the benefits.   Fourth, if there is not a way to do so, make sure your client understands that the settlement will result in a loss of government benefits before your client agrees to accept a settlement proposal. 

Please do not read this post to suggest that it is always inappropriate to settle a case in such a way that government benefits are lost.  As with most things in life, the proper way to handle this issue is not carved in stone.   Rather, one must gather the relevant information so that the client can make an informed judgment about how to handle to issue of future government benefits.

The SSI eligibility rules are complicated.  Our office uses Forge Consulting to assist us in advising clients about the options potentially available under these circumstances.  Charlie Schell is our usual contact with the company, but we have a good relationship with John Bair and Spooner Phillips as well.  These gentlemen understand the issues and would be happy to work with you and your clients.  They work with lawyers across the country on these and other financial issues of interest to plaintiff’s lawyers and their clients.

Thanks to my friend Ricky Boren at Hill Boren for recommending this post.