Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Albert Feuer (Law Offices of Albert Feuer) recently published an article entitled, The Supreme Court Disregards ERISA and Goes Farther Astray in Applying Bankruptcy Law to Retirement Assets, 33 Tax Management Weekly Report 995 (July 2014). Provided below is the abstract from SSRN:
The Supreme Court decided in Clark v. Remaker, 573 U. S. (Slip Opinion No. 13-299, June 12, 2014) the extent of the bankruptcy exemption for “Retirement funds to the extent that those funds are in a fund or account that is exempt from taxation under section 401, 403, 408, 408A, 414, 457, or 501(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.” This bankruptcy fund exemption applies whether the debtor chooses to use the federal or state law bankruptcy exemptions.
The Court decided that the bankruptcy fund exemption did not apply to the beneficiaries of an individual retirement account (“IRA”), although the Court appeared to suggest that a spousal beneficiary may obtain the protection to the extent those benefits become part of the surviving spouse’s individual IRA. The Court’s implicit addition of the phrase “debtor’s created” at the start of the exemption is based on its unexamined assumption that otherwise the phrase, “Retirement funds to the extent that those funds are in,” would be rendered “superfluous.”
The Court asserted that three factors showed that an IRA beneficiary has no interest in retirement funds: (1) IRA beneficiaries, unlike the initial owners, may not make contribution to IRAs, although this is not true after owners attain the age of 70½, so perhaps no IRA owners over the age of 70½ are entitled to the bankruptcy exemption; (2) IRA beneficiaries, unlike the initial owners, must begin taking distributions regardless of their retirement, although IRA owners may take distributions regardless of their retirement, so perhaps no IRA owners are entitled to the bankruptcy exemption; and (3) IRA beneficiaries, unlike the initial owners, may obtain their benefits without incurring a tax penalty prior to attaining the age of 59½, so perhaps no IRA owners over age 59½ are entitled to the bankruptcy exemption.
Under the Court’s analysis beneficiaries of the tax qualified plans subject to the provision, i.e., those plans that are not ERISA pension plans with broad coverage (another section, which the Court ignored, protects a debtor’s interest in such ERISA plans), are not eligible for the bankruptcy fund exemption because they are subject to the three above conditions. As with IRAs, it is not clear whether spousal beneficiaries may obtain the protection to the extent those benefits become part of the surviving spouse’s individual IRA.
The phrase “retirement funds to the extent that those funds are in” has a significance without the addition of any words that is consistent with the legislative history of the phrase, the other bankruptcy provisions, and ERISA. In particular the coverage of the exemption section is limited to (1) the tax-qualified plans that meet the definition of ERISA pension plans without its exclusions, such as those for government or church plans, (2) IRA assets, other than those derived from tax-qualified plans that do not meet the first criterion. Under this analysis the bankruptcy fund protection would be available to the participants and beneficiaries of such non-ERISA pension plans. The bankruptcy exemption for benefit payments and benefit funds associated with an ERISA pension plan with broad coverage that the Supreme Court approved in Patterson v. Shumate, 504 U.S. 753 (1992), also applies to participants and beneficiaries who are both protected by ERISA.