Monday, March 11, 2024

Bankruptcy: ERISA Funds, the Bankruptcy Estate and Homestead Exemptions

In the case of Philips v. Bottoms Judge Payne of the United States District Court at Richmond, Virginia, upheld a Bankruptcy Court ruling that the Virginia homestead exemption, Virginia Code §34-34, was not preempted by ERISA, and that the bankruptcy trustee could claim a portion of an individual retirement account (IRA) not funded by the debtor’s funds from an ERISA-qualified plan.

In Phillips it was disputed that the IRA was not an ERISA-qualified plan. However, because the debtors used funds from an ERISA-qualified plan to create the IRA, the debtors contended that the exemption applicable to an ERISA-qualified plan exempted the IRA because it was created by funds having their origin in such a plan. The Bankruptcy Court held that the IRA was property of the bankrupt estate and that Virginia Code §34-34 was not preempted by ERISA. The Court further held that the debtor’s claimed exemption should be allowed in the amount of $21,532.

In the Bankruptcy Court the trustee sought to thwart the claim that the IRA funds were partially exempt by arguing that Virginia Code §34-34 was preempted by ERISA and therefore was not available to protect any part of the IRA from the claims of creditors. The Bankruptcy Court allowed $21,532 of the $48,858 in interest in the IRA because the parties had agreed that if an exemption was allowable at all, that was the correct amount.

The District Court, in its review, found that although the federal bankruptcy provisions permitted exemption of a payment under a pension to the extent reasonably necessary for the support of the debtor and any dependent, Virginia had enacted an alternative exemption provision, found in Virginia Code §34-34. The state provision, like the federal one it replaced, limited the exemption of retirement benefits. However, rather than limiting the exemption to the extent reasonably necessary for the support of the debtor and his dependents, the Virginia law provided instead that the exemption should not apply to the extent that the interest of the individual in the retirement plan would provides annual benefit in excess of $17,500. The District Court concluded that given the legislative intent underlying the Bankruptcy Code, it was logical to conclude that the limit on pension plan exemptions was Virginia’s attempt to set an exemption level appropriate for the Commonwealth, precisely as was envisioned by Congress when it revised the Bankruptcy Code.

The District Court affirmed the Bankruptcy Court’s decisions that the debtor’s interest in the IRA was part of the bankruptcy estate and that Virginia Code §34-34, even if theoretically preempted by §514(a) of ERISA, was saved from preemption by §514(d) of ERISA.

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