Protect Your Retirement Accounts

Even though they may not be worth quite as much as they used to be, they’re still one of your biggest assets and it’s important to understand the threats so you can protect your retirement accounts.

Protect your retirement accounts from creditors.

Protect your retirement accounts

Why do they need protection? Because there are threats — besides market volatility — that can deprive you of your hard-earned and hard-saved retirement funds.

Retirement accounts remain among many people’s most valuable assets, even at today’s depressed values. That means you need to protect them from creditors, a category that can include former spouses or people who have won lawsuits against you.

Some assets are at greater risk than others.

The good news is that most employer-sponsored plans, including 401(k)’s, are covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, known as Erisa, and are completely protected from creditors — except when those creditors are former spouses or the I.R.S., said D. James Gehring, a lawyer with Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago.

The bad news is that individual retirement accounts are not covered by Erisa. If you have filed for bankruptcy, federal law protects up to $1 million in an I.R.A. that you contributed to directly, and protects the entire account balance if the money was rolled over into an I.R.A. from a company plan, said Jonathan E. Gopman, a lawyer with Cummings & Lockwood in Naples, Fla. So it’s important to keep careful records tracing the funds.

For anything short of bankruptcy, state law determines whether I.R.A.’s (including Roth I.R.A.’s) are shielded from creditors’ claims, Mr. Gopman said.

Each state has different regulations about what is — and isn’t — at risk, but regardless of where you live, there are steps you can take to protect your retirement by creating a trust to shield them. This is attorney stuff, so be sure to consult with one to set things up properly.

Be aware that state and federal laws against fraudulent conveyance prohibit transfers intended to hinder, delay or defraud creditors.

As a rule, such transfers must be in place before there is even a hint of potential trouble, said Gideon Rothschild, a lawyer with Moses & Singer in New York, to be sure they are protected.

Of course, it’s easier to not get into trouble in the first place, but sometimes we don’t have much control. The best rule to follow is “the more you know, the better prepared you’ll be” to protect your retirement accounts.

Click here to read more about how you can protect your retirement accounts.

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