When you've lost a loved one due to someone else's negligence, receiving payment for your loss doesn't make it better. The law does give you the right to sue the person who caused the death, however, and the Internal Revenue Service typically doesn't take a portion in taxes if you successfully reach a settlement. Most wrongful death settlements or court-ordered judgments are tax-free. As is usually the case with tax law, however, there are a few exceptions.
The IRS draws a line between compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are just what they sound like – they're intended to compensate you for your loss. It's a little like saying that the cash award or settlement will return your life to what it used to be. The IRS doesn't tax compensatory portions of personal injury settlements or judgments awards, and wrongful death suits included under the tax umbrella of personal injury litigation.
Punitive damages are a different matter where the IRS is concerned. These usually come into play if the negligence that caused your loved one's death was particularly outrageous or egregious – the death wasn’t the result of an understandable oversight or mistake, but of a deliberate or irresponsible action. Punitive damages act as punishment, and the IRS wants its share of these proceeds if your settlement or judgment includes them. Don't be fooled if your settlement or judgment doesn't actually include the word "punitive." These damages are sometimes called "exemplary" damages. By any name, you must claim them as income.
A portion of your compensatory damages might be taxable if, in previous years, you took deductions from your income for medical bills related to the accident or event that resulted in your loved one's death. If you've always claimed a standard deduction when filing your taxes, you're in the clear – it's only possible to claim medical deductions if you itemize. In you did claim medical expenses, you didn't pay taxes on this portion of your income. If you recover money in a settlement or lawsuit, you must report on your return a portion of the award equal to the amount you deducted. The general rules on punitive damages can sometimes be reversed as well. Some states recognize only punitive damages in wrongful death suits, and the IRS defers to state law in these jurisdictions so you would not have to pay taxes on them. Complicated rules apply, however, so speak with a tax professional if you think you might qualify for this exemption.
Although the IRS doesn't levy income taxes on wrongful death compensatory damages, it does count the proceeds as part of the decedent's estate for estate tax purposes. Unless the amount of the award or settlement pushes the value of your loved one's estate over $5.25 million as of 2013, however, federal estate taxes won't be an issue. The federal government exempts this much of a taxpayer's estate before estate taxes come into play.