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.

60 DAY IRA ROLLOVERS: TAX COURT SAYS DON’T FOLLOW IRS GUIDANCE

A recent U.S. Tax Court case, Bobrow v. Commisioner, T.C. Memo 2014-21, held that a taxpayer may only conduct one 60-day rollover of retirement plan funds per 1-year period. The Court’s opinion was a drastic change from what most taxpayers and professionals understood and from what the IRS has explained in its own publications.

The relevant facts of Bobrow are as follows. Mr. Bobrow conducted two 60-day rollovers in a 1-year period with two separate IRA accounts. He received both sums of money personally and paid them back into his two respective IRAs each within 60 days. Mr. Bobrow, presumably, believed that since he had two different IRAs that he could do two separate 60-day rollovers with those accounts without having either account subject to withdrawal. While Mr. Bobrow relied on a commonly accepted practice that was supported clearly by IRS guidance, the Tax Court disagreed based on the language of IRC 408 (d)(3)(B).

A 60-day rollover is often used by retirement account owners who temporarily roll-over money to themselves personally from their existing retirement account and re-deposit the funds into a new custodian’s retirement account within 60 days.  A 60-day rollover, however, is not to be confused with a trustee to trustee transfer or even a direct rollover, whereby retirement account funds are sent from the prior custodian or trustee of the retirement account funds to the new custodian or trustee. These types of transactions can be done as many times as an account owner desires and do not result in a retirement account owner’s personal receipt of retirement account funds or withdrawal under the tax rules. A 60-day rollover, on the other hand, is sent to the retirement account owner in their own name and can be deposited and used by the retirement account owner during the 60-day period so long as the funds are returned to the retirement account or to a new account within 60-days. A 60-day rollover is sometimes used by retirement account owners who, for example, withdraw funds from their IRA for short-term personal use or investment and then return the withdrawn funds to their IRA within 60-days.

Under IRC 408 (d)(3)(A), an IRA owner’s withdrawal from an IRA is not taxable when returned or deposited into a new IRA within 60 days. However, the question posed in the Bobrow case was how many 60-day rollovers can an individual do in a 1-year period. The 60-day rollover exception is limited in the Code when an individual has already received one 60-day roll-over from an IRA in the past 12 months. The Code specifically states that the 60-day rollover exception cannot be used if the individual has already completed and relied on the exception for a 60-day rollover in the prior 1-year period. IRC 408(d)(3)(B). It has been unclear, however, whether the one 60-day rollover per year applied on a per IRA basis or whether it applied to the individual for all of their accounts.

The IRS had clarified that questions and has previously explained that an individual can conduct one 60-day rollover per 1-year period per IRA and thus interpreted IRC 408(d)(3)(b) to apply on a per IRA basis. This one 60-day rollover per IRA rule is explained by way of example in the current version of IRS Publication 590, page 25, as follows.

You have two traditional IRAs, IRA-1 and IRA-2. You make a tax-free rollover of a distribution from IRA-1 into a new traditional IRA (IRA-3). You cannot, within 1 year of the distribution from IRA-1, make a tax-free rollover of any distribution from either IRA-1 or IRA-3 into another traditional IRA. However, the rollover from IRA-1 into IRA-3 does not prevent you from making a tax-free rollover from IRA-2 into any other traditional IRA. This is because you have not, within the last year, rolled over, tax free, any distribution from IRA-2 or made a tax-free rollover into IRA-2

Based on this explanation, it is clear that the guidance from the IRS is that an individual can make one 60-day rollover per account per 1-year period. Yet, despite this publication, the IRS sought to make Mr. Bodrow’s second 60-day rollover from a separate IRA taxable as it was his second 60-day rollover in a one-year period. The IRS did not give any consideration to the fact that the second 60-day rollover was from a separate IRA (as it clearly explained in IRS Publication 590 to be acceptable).

The U.S. Tax Court agreed with the IRS and held that the limitations of IRC 408 (d)(3)(B) means that an individual can only conduct one 60-day rollover per 1-year period. After my own analysis of IRC 408 (d)(3)(B), I have to say that I agree with the Court’s opinion as the statutory language does not make a distinction between accounts but instead refers to 60-day rollovers taken per individual. Consequently, the intent of the statute is that a taxpayer can only conduct one 60-day rollover per 1-year period for all of their IRAs. Unfortunately, the error of the IRS in providing incorrect guidance does not go in favor of the taxpayer.

Based on the Court’s opinion, retirement account owners are well advised to only conduct one 60-day rollover per 1-year period. Keep in mind that you can conduct as many trustee to trustee or direct rollovers per year as you want as those transfers or rollovers result in money being sent directly to a new retirement account custodian or trustee and are not governed under the 60-day rollover rules.

As of March 18, 2014, the Bobrow case is still somewhat in limbo as there is currently a motion to reconsider filed by the taxpayer pending with the Court. Once the Court decides the motion to reconsider, the Judge will issue a final decision and after the decision is entered the taxpayer will have 90 days to appeal the Court’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Given the significance of the Court’s ruling, I presume that the case will likely be appealed and heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

By: Mat Sorensen, attorney and author of The Self Directed IRA Handbook. www.sdirahandbook.com