Have you rolled over your 401(K) plan or other employer based plan to a rollover IRA? Has someone told you that your rollover IRA in California isn’t protected from creditors. They’re wrong.
Retirement plans are known for being great places to build wealth and they have numerous tax and legal advantages. One of the key benefits of building wealth in a retirement account is that those funds are generally exempt from creditors. However, some states have laws that protect employer based retirement plans (aka, ERISA Plans) more extensively than IRAs. California is one of those states as their laws treat IRAs and ERISA based plans differently (the California Code refers to ERISA based plans, such 401(k)s, as private retirement plans) .
California Code of Civ. Proc., § 704.115, subds. (b),(d), treats funds held in a private retirement plan as fully exempt from collection by creditors. “Private retirement plans” include in their definition “profit-sharing” plans. The most common type of profit sharing plan is commonly known as a 401(k) plan.
IRAs, on the other hand, are only exempt from creditors up to an amount “necessary to provide for the support of the … [IRA owner, their spouse and dependents] … taking into account all resources that are likely to be available…” In other words, the exemption protection for IRAs is “limited”. California Code of Civ. Proc., § 704.115, subdivision (e).
McMullen v. Haycock
Notwithstanding the limited creditor protections for IRAs outlined above, the California Court of Appeals has ruled that rollover IRAs funded from “private retirement plans” receive full creditor protection as if they were a fully protected private retirement plan under California law. McMullen v. Haycock, 54 Cal.Rptr.3d 660 (2007). In McMullen v. Haycock, McMullen had a judgement against Haycock for over $500,000. McMullen attempted to get a writ of execution against Haycock’s IRA at Charles Schwab. In defending against the writ of execution, Haycock claimed that the entire IRA was a rollover IRA funded and traceable to a private retirement plan and thus fully protected from collection as a private retirement plan. Haycock relied on California Code of Civ. Proc., § 703.80, which allows for the tracing of funds for purposes of applying exemptions.
Haycock lost at the trial court level but appealed and the appellate court found in his favor and ruled that his rollover IRA was fully protected from the collection of creditors as the funds in the rollover IRA were traceable to a fully exempt private retirement plan (e.g. former employer’s 401(k) plan).
As a result of McMullen v. Haycock, California IRA owners whose IRAs consist entirely of funds rolled over from a private retirement plan of an employer are fully protected from the collection efforts of creditors. IRAs that consist of individual contributions and are not funded from a prior employer plan rollover will only receive limited creditor protection. It is unclear so far how an IRA would be treated that consists of both private retirement plan rollover funds and new IRA contributions. Presumably, the Courts will trace the funds and separate out the private retirement plan rollover IRA portions from the regular IRA contributions and the regular IRA contributions would then receive the limited protection. Unfortunately, there is no case law or guidance yet as to rollover IRAs with mixed rollover and regular IRA contributions.
McMullen v. Haycock was a big win for IRA owners with funds rolled over from a private retirement plan and one that should be kept in mind when planning your financial and asset protection plan.
When analyzing asset protection for self directed IRAs we must consider two types of potential threats. First, we must analyze how a creditor can collect against an IRA when the creditor has a judgment or claim against the IRA owner personally. Secondly, and most importantly for self directed IRA owners, we must analyze how a creditor can collect against an IRA or its owner when the IRAs investment incurs a claim or judgment.
There has been much written on the protections to retirement plans that prevents a creditor of the IRA owner from collecting against the IRA to satisfy their judgment. Various federal and state laws provide this protection which prohibits a creditor of an IRA owner from collecting or seizing the assets of an IRA or other retirement plan. For example, if an individual personally defaults on a loan in his or her personal name and then gets a judgment against them the creditor may collect against the individual’s personal bank accounts, non retirement plan investment accounts, wages, and other non-exempt assets but is prohibited from collecting against the IRA or other retirement plans of the individual. Even in the case of bankruptcy a retirement plan is considered an exempt asset from the reaches of the creditors being wiped out. U.S. Bankruptcy Code, 11 U.S.C. §522. Because of these asset protection benefits retirement plans are excellent places to hold assets outside the reach or creditors.
The second asset protection issue and the focus of this article is to consider how an is IRA protected from claims arising from the IRA’s investments and activities? This issue is one that is particularly important to self directed IRA accounts since some self directed IRA investments are made into assets that can create liability to the IRA and the protections preventing a creditor of the IRA owner against the IRA assets does not apply to liabilities arising from the IRAs investments. In other words, if the IRA has a liability the IRA is subject to the claims of creditors. For example, if a self directed IRA owns a rental property and the tenant in that property slips and falls the tenant can sue the self directed IRA who owned and leased the property to the tenant. Consequently, the IRAs assets are subject to the collection of the creditor including the property the IRA owned and leased to the tenant as well as the other assets of the IRA. But what about the IRA owner and their personal assets, are their personal assets also at risk?
Let’s analyze this issue further and look at whether a creditor/plaintiff against the IRA can also sue the IRA owner personally if the IRA’s assets are not sufficient to satisfy the judgment against the IRA. IRC § 408 states that an IRA is a trust created when an individual establishes an IRA by signing IRS form 5305 (this form is completed, with some variations, with every IRA) with a bank or qualified custodian. Courts have analyzed what an IRA is under law and have stated that they are a trust or special deposit of the individual for the benefit of the IRA owner. First Nat’l Bank v. Estate of Thomas Philip, 436 N.E. 2d 15 (1992). In other words, the IRA is not a separate entity or trust which would be exempt from creditor protection of its underlying owner. Since the IRA is a trust that is revocable and terminated at the discretion of the IRA owner, each investment in fact is truly controlled by the IRA owner as her or she could terminate the IRA at any time and take ownership in their personal name. As a result, the IRA is akin to a revocable living trust used for estate planning which trust is commonly understood by lawyers and courts to provide no asset protection and prevention of creditors from pursuing the trust creator and owner from liabilities and judgments that arise in the trust. Following this same rationale, a self directed IRA would likely be subjected to a similar downfall in the event of a large liability which is not satisfied by the assets of the IRA. As a consequence, the personal assets of the IRA owner may be at risk.
As a result of the asset protection liabilities for self directed IRAs, we recommend that self directed IRA owners consider an IRA/LLC for the asset protection reasons that many individuals use LLC’s in their personal investment and business activities. Simply put, an LLC prevents the creditor of the LLC from being able pursue the owner of the LLC (in this case the IRA). An IRA/LLC is an LLC owned typically 100% by the IRA and the LLC would operate and take ownership of the investments and the liabilities similar to an LLC used by an individual. For example, instead of the IRA taking ownership of a rental property directly and leasing it to a tenant the IRA/LLC would instead take title to the property and would lease the property to the tenant. When the IRA/LLC owns and leases the property any claims or liabilities that arise are contained in the LLC and as a result of the LLC laws a creditor is prevented from going after the LLC owner (in this case the IRA, or the IRA owner).
There are certain types of self directed IRA investments that benefit greatly from the asset protection offered by an IRA/LLC. Rental real estate owned by an IRA achieves significant asset protection benefits from an IRA/LLC since rental real estate can create liabilities to their owner. Other self directed IRA investments such as promissory note loans, precious metals, or land investments do not have the same asset protection issues and potential to create liability for the IRA and as a result an IRA/LLC isn’t as beneficial from an asset protection perspective for these types of investments.