California Rollover IRAs Can Receive ERISA-Style Creditor Protection

Photo of shelves filled with law books and the text "California Rollover IRAs Can Receive ERISA-Style Creditor Protection."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.

California Exemptions

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.