Q: My wife retired late last year and we are thinking about rolling some of her 401(k) assets into an IRA account. We live in California and understand that the protections from creditors and in bankruptcy vary. Does this move make sense for us? —Max Liu
A: There are a lot of good reasons to roll money from a 401(k) plan into an IRA after retiring. In an IRA, you have greater control over your assets. You can own individual stocks, ETFs, or even real estate, and not be bound to the often-limited menu of investment options in your company’s plan. Since you are not working any longer, there is no concern over getting an employer match. If the fees seem high or you just don’t like maneuvering the plan’s website, a rollover may make sense.
But you are right to consider protection from creditors. In general, all assets inside a 401(k) plan are out of reach of creditors, both inside or outside of bankruptcy. That’s often true of 401(k) assets rolled into an IRA, as well—though you may be required to prove that those assets came from a 401(k). For that reason, never co-mingle rolled over assets with those from a self-funded IRA, says Howard Rosen, an asset protection attorney in Miami, Fla. He advises opening a new account for the roll over.
Federal law sets these protections. But through local bankruptcy code, 33 states have put their own spin on the rules—and California is one of those. “You need to understand that when you move assets from a 401(k) plan to an IRA, you are moving from full protection to limited protection,” says Jeffrey Verdon, an asset protection attorney in Newport Beach, Calif.
States like Texas and Florida make virtually no distinction between assets in a 401(k) and those rolled into an IRA, he says. Assets are fully protected from creditors in both types of retirement account. Further, in such states the distributions from such accounts are also protected.
But in California, creditors may come after any IRA assets not deemed necessary for living expenses. They may also come after any distributions you take from your IRA. You can protect up to $1.25 million through bankruptcy, a figure that resets every three years to account for inflation. But that is a total for all IRA assets, not each account, says Cyrus Amini, a financial adviser at Charlesworth and Rugg in Woodland Hills, Calif. And note, too, that a critical ruling last year determined that inherited IRAs are no longer protected.
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To understand IRA protections in other states, you may need to speak with the office of the state securities commissioner or state attorney. Many of the state rules have been shaped through case law, and so you may want to consult a private attorney, says Amini. Another good starting point is the legal sites Nolo.com and protectyou.com.