US Supreme Court holds that inherited IRA’s are not “retirement funds” that can be exempted in bankruptcy, but New Jersey residents may have other protections

We previously reported that the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that inherited IRA’s were not protected by the Bankruptcy Code’s IRA exemption. The Supreme Court agreed, in a ruling issued June 12, 2014. Clark v Rameker. This means that debtors in bankruptcy cannot count on being able to keep such IRA’s under the federal IRA exemption, 11 USC 522(b)(3)(C). However, debtors who live in New Jersey may still be able to rely on a separate statute that removes IRA’s from a bankruptcy estate. NJSA 25:2-1(b). Because that statute has broader wording than the federal exemption statute, it may shelter inherited IRA’s. But in view of the Supreme Court’s decision, there may be some open questions here.

In Rameker, the Debtor’s mother named Mrs. Clark the beneficiary of an IRA. Under the applicable tax code sections, 26 USC 408 and 408A, the Debtor could either take the IRA funds outright, or roll them over into an “inherited IRA”. Unlike regular IRA’s, the money in these IRA’s can be taken out any time without penalty, and no additional money can be put into them. The Trustee objected to Mrs. Clark’s claim of the entire inherited IRA as exempt, and the exemption was overruled by the 7th Circuit. The Supreme Court agreed, finding that as Congress wrote the exemption, it applied only to “retirement funds”, which, it found, inherited IRA’s were not. The critical distinction was the ability to pull the funds out at any time and to use them for any purpose as well as the inability to add to the account. Funds in an inherited IRA, it found, “constitute ‘a pot of money that can be freely used for current consumption'”

Bad news outside of New Jersey. But New Jersey passed a law intended to shelter “any property held in a qualifying trust and any distributions from a qualifying trust, regardless of the distribution plan elected for the qualifying trust” NJSA 25:2-1(b). A qualifying trust is defined as “a trust created or qualified and maintained pursuant to federal law, including, but not limited to, section 401, 403, 408, 408A, 409, 529 or 530 of the federal Internal Revenue Code of 1986” Id. There is no reference to retirement funds. And such property or distributions are “exempt from all claims of creditors and shall be excluded from an estate in bankruptcy, subject to certain exceptions.

Does this state law supercede contrary limitations in the Bankruptcy Code? The Third Circuit Court of Appeals held it did in In re Yuhas, 104 F.3d 612 (3d Cir 1997), cert denied, 521 U.S. 1105 (1997). For now at least, that would seem to answer the question.

But if someone were to push the issue, we wonder whether the New Jersey exclusion would withstand further scrutiny by the Supreme Court. States are given only limited powers in bankruptcy matters. They are allowed to “opt out” of the Bankruptcy Code’s exemption scheme and craft their own exemptions in bankruptcy. New Jersey has not done that. So how can New Jersey declare that a broad range of assets are “exempt”?

Moreover, New Jersey has purported to “exclude” these “qualified trusts” from an estate in bankruptcy. The Bankruptcy Code treats certain types of assets, whether or not an exemption is available, as “excluded” from a bankruptcy estate. 11 USC 541(c)(2). Examples are ERISA qualified pensions, and assets in valid spendthrift trusts.  One can argue that New Jersey’s attempt to re-write this section of the Bankruptcy Code falls afoul of the Constitution’s mandate that bankruptcy laws be the sole province of federal law, and for that reason is invalid. But the counter-argument is that New Jersey law determines what is a valid trust Bankruptcy Code section 541(c)(2) excludes from the bankruptcy estate.  If NJSA 25:2-1(b) is seen as declaring all such “qualified trusts” to have the same protections as otherwise valid “spendthrift trusts” (ie those created with a provision that no part of the trust can be levied, pledged, or encumbered), the validity of the statute could stand unimpeded.

For now, attentive bankruptcy practitioners, especially outside New Jersey, need counsel their clients accordingly.


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