Vogel Law Firm, Ltd.: estate planning law firm serving families throughout the State of Wisconsin

Monday, April 29, 2013

No Bankruptcy Law Protection for Inherited IRAs

Last week, in Rameker v. Clark, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that assets held in an inherited IRA are not exempt assets in a bankruptcy court proceeding. This is important for parents and beneficiaries of their IRAs to understand. This ruling clarifies the law on this point, at least for Wisconsin and Illinois, which are states subject to decisions from the 7th Circuit.

This ruling is unique and important. First, if money is in a participant's IRA, the money is an exempt asset in a bankruptcy proceeding pursuant to sections 522(b)(3)(C) and (d)(12) of the bankruptcy code. This exemption is critically important. If a person files for bankruptcy protection and has an IRA, the balance of the IRA is exempt from creditor attack and does not need to be used to pay creditors. The recent court ruling specifically addresses whether the creditor protection extends to an inherited IRA.

For example, parent names child 1 and child 2 as equal primary beneficiaries of his $500,000 IRA. Parent dies. Child 1 and child 2 each inherit an IRA worth $250,000. Child 1 subsequently files a bankruptcy petition. The precise issue before the court was whether the bankruptcy trustee could force child 1 to use the IRA to pay creditors. The 7th Circuit ruled that the bankruptcy trustee could take the assets of the IRA to pay creditors.

The case in question originated in the Western District of Wisconsin. Heidi Heffron-Clark inherited a $300,000 IRA from her mother, Ruth Heffron. The court reasoned that once the IRA was inherited by Heidi, the funds in the IRA were no longer retirement funds. While Heidi's mother was alive, the IRA represented retirement funds, "but when she died they became no one's retirement funds." To the court, the funds in the IRA "represented an opportunity for current consumption, not a fund of retirement savings."

The Clark decision will have a ripple effect. There are likely many pending bankruptcy cases in the 7th Circuit that will be impacted. In addition, the opinion of the 7th Circuit conflicts with opinions from the 8th and 5th Circuits. Consequently, the U.S. Supreme Court will likely eventually grant certiorari to a case to decide this issue on a national basis.

From an estate planning perspective, if a child has creditor issues, and that child is the likely beneficiary of a retirement account, it may be logical for the parent to designate a trust as the beneficiary of the retirement account.  With a properly drafted trust as the beneficiary, the IRA would be exempt from creditor attack.  Heidi Heffron-Clark may be wishing her mother would have considered this type of planning before her death.  Instead, she is now faced with using the $300,000 in the inherited IRA to pay her and her husband's creditors or appealing her case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Friday, April 12, 2013

President Obama's 2014 Proposed Budget

As the financial community knows, the current federal estate tax exclusion amount is $5.25 million per deceased person for tax year 2013.  This amount is also indexed for inflation and will likely increase each year, pending legislative change.

Last week, President Obama issued his proposed budget for 2014 ("Green Book").  The President's budget contains four significant tax law changes.  One of those changes is a proposal to return the federal estate tax law to the law on the books in 2009.  This would mean a reduction in the federal estate tax exclusion to $3.5 million.

While the passage of the budget plan is likely slim, considering the republican-controlled House of Representatives, the proposal still amazes me.  Just when I thought the estate and gift tax environment was relatively stable and permanently fixed, politicians continue to propose measures to defeat the "permanency."  The concept of wealth redistribution will never die.  People will keep seeking a false utopia through the concept of wealth redistribution.

The Green Book also reminds me that no tax law is permanently established.