Given the immense financial hardship inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic, a rise in personal bankruptcies could be waiting in the wings. For those whose livelihoods have been hit the hardest, it might be important to review the creditor protections that apply to their retirement accounts.
The extent to which assets are protected can vary significantly, depending on the type of account and applicable federal or state law. Being aware of the details can help individuals in financial or legal jeopardy determine whether and/or when they should file for bankruptcy to preserve their retirement funds. It may also help them avoid costly rollover mistakes.
Most employer-sponsored retirement plans, such as 401(k)s, provide virtually unlimited protection against both bankruptcy and non-bankruptcy general creditor claims under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). An example of a general creditor claim is when a person files a lawsuit and wins a judgment in court against the account owner. Thanks to ERISA, creditors cannot attach retirement account funds to satisfy any debts or obligations, regardless of whether bankruptcy has been declared.
Solo 401(k) plans, which are often utilized by self-employed individuals and independent contractors, are not covered by ERISA. This means that solo 401(k) plans — along with other non-ERISA employer plans such as 403(b)s, 457(b) governmental plans, and SEP and SIMPLE IRAs — do not receive non-bankruptcy creditor protection under federal law, though they are fully protected from bankruptcy under the Bankruptcy Code. (Outside of bankruptcy, general creditor protection is based on state law.)
IRAs and Rollovers
Traditional and Roth IRA contributions and earnings are protected from bankruptcy up to $1,362,800 per person until April 1, 2022. This limit is for all accounts combined and is adjusted for inflation every three years. Rollovers from employer plans, including SEP and SIMPLE plans, do not count against this cap. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that IRA assets inherited by nonspouses are not protected under the Bankruptcy Code.
General creditor protection for traditional and Roth IRAs is based on state law, as it is with SEP and SIMPLE IRAs. So, account owners should carefully consider their own state’s general creditor protections before rolling fully protected ERISA plan dollars into an IRA. Those who change jobs should remember they may have two other options: leave savings in the former employer’s plan or transfer them to a new employer’s plan, if allowed. Unfortunately, retirement account withdrawals and pension benefits paid as income are no longer protected from bankruptcy, so creditors may wait patiently and stake a claim to retirement funds after they are withdrawn.