Keep your retirement assets and life insurance through bankruptcy

One of the biggest assets owned by Americans, other than their homes, is their retirement plan. Through the explosion of 401(k) accounts and mutual funds over the past 25 years, many have assembled a significant retirement nest egg through regular payroll deductions. Of course, there’s a catch — the money is inaccessible without paying a hefty tax and penalty, and in some instances can only be withdrawn (or borrowed against) by a showing of financial emergency.

But having a significant retirement account doesn’t help you when a job loss, medical problem, business failure, death, or other financial disaster strikes. In those situations, a bankruptcy discharge may be the only way to get relief — and in doing so, you can keep your qualified retirement assets.

A “qualified retirement” asset is one that enjoys tax benefits, typically a combination of:

  • tax deductibility of contributions;
  • tax-deferred growth; and/or
  • tax exemption of proceeds upon proper withdrawal

And of course, all qualified plans have a 10% penalty (plus accrued taxes, if any) upon early/improper withdrawal.

The vast majority of employer-sponsored retirement plans (defined benefit pensions, defined contribution pensions) and employee-contribution plans (401(k)s, 403(b)s, many thrift savings plans, etc.) are qualified retirement plans. Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) and Roth IRAs are also qualified retirement plans. If you get a tax break on a long-term retirement savings account, chances are it’s a qualified retirement plan and exempt from creditors in bankruptcy. You can keep it!

The same is true for cash value life insurance policies. Many of these are called “whole life,” “straight life,” “variable life,” or “universal life,” and what they have in common is an accumulation of cash surrender value over time. Cash value life insurance is also exempt from creditors. This is important, as cash value grows on a tax-deferred basis in a similar manner to qualified retirement plans. You don’t pay the taxes until you take it out. For this reason, life insurance is used by some financial planners as a way to supplement those who don’t have a qualified retirement plan or who have maxed out their contributions.

The important message through all of this: bankruptcy doesn’t have to wipe out your retirement or life savings. If you have a financial crisis and need relief, don’t let fear of losing these assets keep you from consulting with a qualified attorney about your bankruptcy options.

A Cruel Retirement, Part One: Medical Crises

Retirement is supposed to be a great time of our lives. Everything is paid for, the kids are grown and you are ready to travel. Unfortunately, this image is more ideal than real. The truth is that retirement for many people is difficult. Whether this fact impacts you or an elderly loved one, it is important to understand that the dynamics of filing for bankruptcy are very different when we are older.

A recent article in a London publication documented that there has been a dramatic shift in England of the number of elderly people who have financial troubles. Bankruptcy attorneys are seeing a similar shift in the United States and, particularly, in Texas. There are so many causes of this problem that it is hard to focus on any one reason.

Part of the problem is health care. We tend to have more health problems in our later years. While insurance sometimes pays a majority of these costs, even the deductible can be devastating to someone on a fixed income. I have found that many people really do not have a feel for how difficult it is to live on a fixed income. Yet, those same people often live check to check themselves. Imagine living on an income that does not adjust for rapid inflation. Even gasoline costs have increased. And medical creditors are among the most vicious creditors of all. They do not take “no” for an answer. The days when you could pay just $10 a month to a medical creditor are gone. Hospitals often turn people over to a collection agency soon after their hospital visit, and the phone calls begin immediately. Elderly people are often not able to withstand the intense pressure of collection professionals, who will ask questions such as, “don’t you believe in paying your bills?”

People in their later years are very proud. They have worked all of their lives, paid all of their bills and done quite well for themselves. Suddenly, they are faced not only with little income but with little or no prospects for generating enough income to be able to dig themselves out of a hole. When a bill collector begins the harassment, it is not simply an annoyance for most people in their mature years. People who have always been able to write a check and make that payment suddenly have their honor and their worth challenged.

Even if an elderly person can get past the simple embarrassment and emotional end of being harassed by a medical bill collector, a real fear is that more such creditors may be on the way. The sad truth is that when both spouses are suffering from health issues, there is no escape. The fear that you may not be able to get treatment for your spouse if you do not pay current medical bill is one most of us can relate to. We would do anything for our loved ones. Don’t forget, bill collectors know this and use it extensively when dealing with those who have medical debt. Such collectors often suggest helpful hints for paying the medical debt — all you have to do is pull out that credit card that has had a zero balance for years and pay the bill. When you do that, the calls will stop, the bill is gone and you can feel good about yourself again. An instant solution. Unfortunately, far too many people succumb to that suggestion.

If you or a loved one is facing a medical debt situation, consider talking to a bankruptcy attorney PRIOR to depleting the resources that may be needed to sustain your years of retirement. The consultation is free and there may be other options. However, until you sit down with an experienced attorney, you will not know if bankruptcy can help.