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Discharge Your Debts and Keep Your 401(k)

March 26, 2012

Have you ever heard the phrase “throwing good money after bad?” It means spending money on something that has little chance of success. When you get into financial trouble, the sensible thing is to fight to work your way out of trouble. Unfortunately, many people fail to recognize that point when it no longer makes good sense to continue throwing money at a problem. Some will eat through savings and retirement accounts hoping to delay the problem long enough for something good to happen. In the end the savings and retirement accounts are gone, and the debt is still there.

Bankruptcy is a legal process than can reorganize your finances and eliminate your overwhelming debt. In bankruptcy most retirement funds are protected, so if you’re facing a debt that you cannot pay, consider filing bankruptcy instead of draining your retirement accounts.

Whether a retirement account is protected first depends on if the account is “property of the bankruptcy estate.”. The U.S. Supreme Court in the case Paterson v. Shumate, 504 US 753 (1992), stated that retirement plans that contain an “anti-alienation clause” are not property of the bankruptcy estate pursuant to 11 USC § 541(c)(2). An “anti-alienation clause” prevents creditors (and the bankruptcy trustee) from seizing your retirement funds. Nearly all ERISA retirement plans and 401(k) accounts have an “anti-alienation clause.”

If your account does not have an “anti-alienation clause,” it may be exempt from creditor collection. Examples of retirement accounts that are exempt during bankruptcy include Roth IRAs, up to $1,171,650.00; and qualifying plans under sections 401, 403, 408, 414, 457, and 507(a) of the Internal Revenue Code. Other plans not listed above can be exempt during bankruptcy. In some cases the law on exempting retirement accounts is complicated and is changing rapidly. Consult your attorney for specific advice on your retirement account.

If you are overwhelmed by a debt problem that will not go away, speak with an experienced bankruptcy attorney before cashing out your retirement accounts. In many cases your debt can be discharged or paid over three to five years, and you can keep your retirement accounts. So consider bankruptcy to throw out the bad debt and keep your good money!


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