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Can Your Retirement Account Be Used to Settle Business Debts?
Let’s say you owe money in a judgment, yet you still want to continue contributing to your savings accounts. Can you do that, or can that money be used to settle your judgment?
First Citizens Bank v. Blue Ox
A case decided by the South Carolina Court of Appeals heard in late 2017 dealt with this exact issue. Here’s a little bit of the background.
J. Chris Lindgren was the sole member of Blue Ox, LLC. In 2013, he signed confessions of judgment totaling $113,000 on behalf of himself and Blue Ox after he defaulted on a loan from the Bank. Lindgren never paid the judgment, and in the meantime, Blue Ox went defunct. Since the time of the judgment, Lindgren made contributions to an IRA account and a 401(k) plan.
The Bank wanted the judgement settled and started supplemental proceedings against Lindgren. It argued that the contributions he made to those accounts were fraudulent and that money should be available to pay off the judgement.
Lindgren knew he owned money to the Bank. Yet he still made contributions to three separate savings accounts. Was that legal? Should the money have been or become available to pay off the judgment? Or are those accounts protected from such use?
The case was first heard and decided by the Master-In-Equity before the cross-appeal was heard by the Court of Appeals. The Master-In-Equity determined that the 401(k) contributions were exempt from execution but his IRA contributions were not. Here are some issues the Court considered when deciding the case, and what it means for you.
The Homestead Exemption Act: What’s Exempt Under the Law
The Bank argued that the 401(k) contributions Lindgren made were not subject to protection under the Homestead Exemption Act.
What is the Homestead Exemption Act? It’s probably best known to South Carolina homeowners because it exempts the first $50,000 in value in real property in from property taxes for homeowners over 65, totally and permanently disabled, or legally blind.
The Act goes much further than this, however, and spells out exactly how much property a debtor may have that is “exempt from attachment, levy, and sale.” That is, these particular assets are protected from being used to settle debts.
In addition to the $50,000 in real property that’s exempt, the Act also allows $5,000 of interest in one motor vehicle, $4,000 in personal property such as household goods and clothing, $1,000 in family jewelry, etc. It also protects income due to the debtor from things like social security benefits, veterans’ benefits, alimony, and pension plans.
In the case at hand, the Court of Appeals AFFIRMED the Master’s initial finding and DISAGREED with the Bank. It determined that that the contributions Lindgren made to his 401(k) accounts were clearly protected under Section 15-41-30(A)(14) of the Act as a matter of statute. The Court also noted that “the exemptions in the Homestead Act are to be construed in favor of the Debtor.”
The Statute of Elizabeth: What Constitutes Fraudulent Behavior
It is illegal under South Carolina law to intentionally transfer assets in order to avoid paying your debts. If you remember from a previous blog on this topic of fraudulent conveyances and the Statute of Elizabeth, Courts can look for “badges of fraud” to assess whether or not someone’s behavior was fraudulent in intent.
In this case, the Court stated that the Bank needed to demonstrate Lindgren’s “actual intent to defraud” in order to make his savings contributions available for settlement of the judgment. The Court determined that the following badges of fraud were present:
- Lindgren did not possess enough assets to pay the debt
- Lindgren reserved the benefit of the IRA contributions for himself
- Lindgren was aware of the outstanding judgment against him at the time of the contributions
However, the Court found that many other badges were missing:
- Contributions were limited in amount
- Contributions were not secretive
- Contributions were in line with his long-standing pattern of investing in retirement
This last point is important. Lindgren provided evidence that he had a pattern of contributing to his savings accounts for many years before he signed the confessions of judgment. The contributions he made after the judgment were a continuation of that pattern, which the Court said is “conduct that is encouraged by the very existence of the exemption.”
Based on all this, the Court did not find “clear and convincing” evidence of fraudulent intent. It REVERSED the Master’s finding that Lindgren’s IRA contributions were fraudulent conveyances.
Ownership and Consideration
The Court failed to find Lindgren’s behavior demonstrated clear intent to defraud under the Statute of Elizabeth. Yet it also acknowledged that analysis under the Statute of Elizabeth was not mandated in this case for two reasons.
First, one of the hallmarks of fraudulent conveyance is that the asset changes ownership. However, money contributed to an IRA still belongs to the debtor; while it has now been transferred into a protected asset, ownership has not changed. (The Court also noted that in bankruptcy, the “conversion of a non-exempt asset into an exempt asset is not in and of itself a fraudulent act.”)
Second, there is the issue of consideration, which refers to the exchange of one thing for another. Typically, in instances of fraudulent conveyance, no consideration is being given for the assets transferred. For example, someone may transfer land into someone else’s name, but receive no money for it. This is one of the badges of fraud.
In this case, the Court stated that “in the specific case of IRAs, the contribution is never made for valuable consideration” (emphasis theirs). Therefore, it is not appropriate to consider Lindgren’s contributions his IRA in terms of the Statute of Elizabeth.
Your Savings Accounts May Be Safe from Debts
The South Carolina Court of Appeals looked at state statute, the intent of the law, and the Debtor’s behavior to come to the conclusions it did. It ultimately protected Lindgren’s contributions to his savings accounts from execution for settlement of the judgment he owed. This is a positive outcome for individuals who may be in debt but want to continue saving for the future.
However, don’t assume that any contributions made to savings accounts are always safe from execution. A lot depends on the particular facts of the case. In addition, this is a Court of Appeals decision, and may not be the final word on the issue. As of March 2018, there is a petition for rehearing pending, meaning that the South Carolina Supreme Court could reverse the decision.
Get Business and Estate Planning Advice
For legal advice from an experienced business and estate planning attorney, call Gem McDowell Law Group in Mt. Pleasant today at 843-284-1021. Gem has over 25 years of experience in solving legal problems and helping people planning for the future, and he is ready to help you do the same.