Whistleblower awards are big business. In 2016 alone, the IRS paid over $60 million to whistleblowers. The SEC awarded a similar amount. A patchwork of other whistleblower laws involving 57 federal statutes and 44 states, including California, also result in tens of millions in annual payouts. Not all whistleblower laws involve awards, but rather damages for retaliation. For instance, Penn State was ordered to pay coach Michael McQueary $12 million after firing him for reporting the notorious Jerry Sandusky to college officials. Though the amounts vary widely year to year, the trend is more tips filed, more whistleblower cases, bigger awards.
Whistleblower cases usually take a long time, with many obstacles along the way that can derail final payment. The average is three years. It’s a long wait, but it does provide an opportunity for tax planning for those who don’t want to be taxed by California for an award that can run from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of dollars (my practice has involved tax planning for clients who received awards along most of this spectrum).
How Are Whistleblower Awards Taxed?
At the federal level, the taxation of whistleblower awards has been highly litigated and subject to Congressional tinkering. But the ultimate result is the proceeds of the award are taxed as ordinary income. How to calculate the amount of the “proceeds,” and whether a deduction for attorney’s fees (which are usually a large percentage of the award) is allowed, depends on the particular federal statute that applies.