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Small Estate Affidavits and Retirement Plan Assets

“One of my clients who sponsors a 401(k) plan asked me about a “small estate affidavit;” what is it and can it be used with retirement account assets?”

ERISA consultants at the Retirement Learning Center (RLC) Resource Desk regularly receive calls from financial advisors on a broad array of technical topics related to IRAs, qualified retirement plans and other types of retirement savings and income plans, including nonqualified plans, stock options, and Social Security and Medicare.  We bring Case of the Week to you to highlight the most relevant topics affecting your business.

A recent call with a financial advisor from Minnesota is representative of a common inquiry related to retirement account beneficiaries.

Highlights of the Discussion

A small estate affidavit is a creature of state law. A small estate affidavit is a sworn written statement that authorizes someone to claim a decedent’s assets outside of the formal probate process when the estate is below a set value. Each state that authorizes the use of such documents sets forth the process and procedure for their use in state statute. For example, the governing Minnesota state statute for collection of personal property by affidavit is §524.3-1201 when the value of the estate does not exceed $75,000.

A small estate affidavit may come into play when a person dies “intestate,” that is, without a will (or named beneficiaries in the case of retirement plan assets.) Usually, the estate of a person who has died intestate goes through probate court to determine who will inherit the decedent’s assets. Use of a small estate affidavit can bypass the probate process.

When it comes to retirement plan assets, ERISA 3(8) allows participants to designate beneficiaries directly. The governing plan documents will outline the steps and forms necessary to properly assign beneficiaries of the plan. Federal law requires the spouse of a plan participant to be the beneficiary by default, unless he or she formally waives his or her right to the assets. If a participant fails to properly designate a beneficiary, or if no beneficiary so designated survives the participant, most plan documents specify the beneficiary shall be the surviving spouse, or if there is no surviving spouse, the deceased participant’s estate.

Whether a plan sponsor or plan administrator should honor a small estate affidavit is an important legal question. A “best practices approach” for plan sponsors could include the following steps.

  1. Review what the governing plan document says about the distribution of assets when no beneficiary is named, particularly with respect to the use of small estate affidavits.
  2. If the plan document is silent on small estate affidavits, determine if there are distribution administration policies in place that address the use of small estate affidavits.
  3. Absent plan document and distribution policy guidance, or if the guidance is unclear, seek the advice of an attorney and document the recommended course of action.
  4. Consider formally addressing the use of small estate affidavits within the plan’s distribution policies and/or plan document.

Conclusion

Plan administrators may encounter small estate affidavits when a deceased plan participant’s estate is small as determined by state law. Honoring a small estate affidavit is an important legal question for plan sponsors. The most prudent course of action would be to proceed with caution with the guidance of legal counsel.

 

© Copyright 2021 Retirement Learning Center, all rights reserved
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When Are Retirement Assets Protected from Creditors?

An advisor asked: “Can you give me a refresher on the creditor protection rules for retirement plan assets at the federal and state levels?”

ERISA consultants at the Retirement Learning Center (RLC) Resource Desk regularly receive calls from financial advisors on a broad array of technical topics related to IRAs, qualified retirement plans and other types of retirement savings and income plans, including nonqualified plans, stock options, and Social Security and Medicare. We bring Case of the Week to you to highlight the most relevant topics affecting your business.

A recent call with an advisor in Minnesota is representative of a common question on creditor protection for retirement plan assets.

Highlights of the Discussion
• The level of creditor protection for retirement plan assets depends on

1) the type of plan assets, and

2) whether the owner of the assets has filed for bankruptcy and, if not, the governing laws of the state with jurisdiction over the assets.

• The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA), effective October 17, 2005, clarified the level of creditor protection for retirement plan assets when the owner has filed for bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy
• BAPCPA amended Section 522 of the Bankruptcy Code to exempt from a debtor’s bankruptcy estate retirement assets that are held in

– IRC Sec. 401(a) plans (e.g., 401(k), defined contribution and defined benefit plans);
– 403(b) plans,
– Traditional IRAs (up to $1 million of contributory assets, indexed periodically),
– Roth IRAs (up to $1 million of contributory assets, indexed periodically),
– Simplified employee pension (SEP) plans,
– Savings Incentive Match Plans for Employees (SIMPLE) plans,
– Church plans,
– Governmental plans,
– Multiemployer plans,
– Eligible 457(b) plans of state and local governments and IRC Sec. 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations and
– IRC Sec. 501(a) plans of tax-exempt organizations.

• Eligible rollover distributions under IRC Sec. 402(c) retain the unlimited bankruptcy protection given to them while held in the exempt retirement plan if they are contributed to another eligible retirement plan within 60 days of distribution. Earnings on the rollover assets are protected as well.

Nonbankruptcy
• In nonbankruptcy situations, assets held in ERISA plans are fully protected under the anti-alienation provision of the law [see Section 541(c)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code pursuant to Patterson vs. Shumate, 504 U.S. 753 (1992) and Section 206(d)(1) of ERISA].
• The protection of IRA assets (including rollover amounts) from general creditors of the IRA owner in nonbankruptcy situations falls under applicable state law, with many states—but not all—providing some level of exemption. (Link to State Government Websites for more information)
• Keep in mind that any qualified retirement plan or IRA (including traditional, Roth, rollover, SIMPLE or SEP plan IRAs) may be subject to an IRS tax levy.

Conclusion
The amount of creditor protection for retirement assets depends on whether the investor has filed for bankruptcy or not, and the type of retirement savings arrangements involved. For specific situations, individuals should consult legal counsel.

 

© Copyright 2021 Retirement Learning Center, all rights reserved
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Real Estate Agents and Retirement Plans

“A client of mine is a real estate agent who receives income that is reported on Form 1099-MISC, Miscellaneous Income. Can this individual contribute to a retirement plan?”

ERISA consultants at the Retirement Learning Center (RLC) Resource Desk regularly receive calls from financial advisors on a broad array of technical topics related to IRAs, qualified retirement plans and other types of retirement savings and income plans, including nonqualified plans, stock options, and Social Security and Medicare. We bring Case of the Week to you to highlight the most relevant topics affecting your business.
A recent call with an advisor in North Dakota is representative of a common question related plan eligibility.

Highlights of Discussion

• Some unique rules for retirement plan eligibility apply for real estate agents, based on their worker status as a “statutory nonemployee.” (Since each employment scenario is based on unique facts and circumstances; it is recommended that workers seek professional tax advice for a definitive determination in their particular situations.)
• Individuals who perform services for businesses may be classified as an independent contractor, a common law-employee, a statutory employee, or a statutory nonemployee. The IRS explains each classification in more detail in Publication 15-A, Employer’s Supplemental Tax Guide.
• There are three categories of statutory nonemployees: direct sellers, licensed real estate agents, and certain companion sitters. Licensed real estate agents include individuals engaged in appraisal activities for real estate sales if they earn income based on sales or other output.  Direct sellers and real estate agents are treated as self-employed for all Federal tax purposes, including income and employment taxes, if the following are true.

1. Substantially all payments for their services as direct sellers or real estate agents are directly related to sales or other output, rather than to the number of hours worked; and
2. Their services are performed under a written contract that provides they will not be treated as employees for Federal tax purposes.
Because real estate agents are considered self-employed, they are eligible to establish a retirement plan based on their earnings from self-employment. Please see IRS Publication 560, Retirement Plans for Small Businesses.

Conclusion
If a licensed real estate agent meets the above criteria, he or she could establish a retirement plan using his or her Form 1099-MISC income. Since each employment scenario is based on unique facts and circumstances, it is recommended that workers seek professional tax advice for a definitive determination.

 

© Copyright 2021 Retirement Learning Center, all rights reserved
IRA
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Active Plan Participant and IRA Contributions

“Active participation in an employer’s retirement plan can affect whether an IRA contribution made by the participant is deductible on the tax return. What does ‘active participation’ mean?”

ERISA consultants at the Retirement Learning Center Resource Desk regularly receive calls from financial advisors on a broad array of technical topics related to IRAs, qualified retirement plans and other types of retirement savings plans. We bring Case of the Week to you to highlight the most relevant topics affecting your business.

A recent call with a financial advisor from Minnesota is representative of a common inquiry involving a taxpayer’s ability to make a deductible IRA contribution. 

Highlights of Discussion

For purposes of the IRA deduction rules, an individual shall be an “active participant” for a taxable year if either the individual or the individual’s spouse actively participates during any part of the year in a(n)[1]

  • Qualified plan described in Internal Revenue Code Section [IRC §401(a)], such as a defined benefit, profit sharing, 401(k) or stock bonus plan;
  • Qualified annuity plan described in IRC §403(a);
  • Simplified employee pension (SEP) plan under IRC §408(k);
  • Savings incentive match plan for employees (SIMPLE) IRA under IRC §408(p);
  • Governmental plan established for its employees by the federal, state or local government, or by an agency or instrumentality thereof (other than a plan described in IRC §457);
  • IRC §403(b) plan, either annuity or custodial account; or
  • Trust created before June 25, 1959, as described in IRC §501(c)(18).

When an individual is considered active depends on the type of employer-sponsored plan.

Profit Sharing or Stock Bonus Plan:   During the participant’s taxable year, if he or she receives a contribution or forfeiture allocation, he or she is an active participant for the taxable year.

Voluntary or Mandatory Employee Contributions: During the participant’s taxable year, if he or she makes voluntary or mandatory employee contributions to a plan, he or she is an active participant for the taxable year.

Defined Benefit Plan: For the plan year ending with or within the individual’s taxable year, if an individual is not excluded under the eligibility provisions of the plan, he or she is an active participant for that taxable year.

Money Purchase Pension Plan: For the plan year ending with or within the individual’s taxable year, if the plan must allocate an employer contribution to an individual’s account he or she is an active participant for the taxable year.

Refer to IRS Notice 87-16 for specific examples of active participation.

As a quick check, Box 13 on an individual’s IRS Form W-2 should contain a check in the “Retirement plan” box if the person is an active participant for the taxable year.

 

Form W-2 Box 13 Retirement Plan Checkbox Decision Chart

Type of Plan Conditions Check Retirement Plan Box?
Defined benefit plan (for example, a traditional pension plan) Employee qualifies for employer funding into the plan, due to age/years of service—even though the employee may not be vested or ever collect benefits Yes
Defined contribution plan (for example, a 401(k) or 403(b) plan, a Roth 401(k) or 403(b) account, but not a 457 plan) Employee is eligible to contribute but does not elect to contribute any money in this tax year No
Defined contribution plan (for example, a 401(k) or 403(b) plan, a Roth 401(k) or 403(b) account, but not a 457 plan) Employee is eligible to contribute and elects to contribute money in this tax year Yes
Defined contribution plan (for example, a 401(k) or 403(b) plan, a Roth 401(k) or 403(b) account, but not a 457 plan) Employee is eligible to contribute but does not elect to contribute any money in this tax year, but the employer does contribute funds Yes
Defined contribution plan (for example, a 401(k) or 403(b) plan, a Roth 401(k) or 403(b) account, but not a 457 plan) Employee contributed in past years but not during the current tax year under report No (even if the account value grows due to gains in the investments)
Profit-sharing plan Plan includes a grace period after the close of the plan year when profit sharing can be added to the participant’s account Yes

 

If a person is an active participant, he or she must apply income thresholds to determine whether an IRA contribution is deductible or not. Please refer to the following chart

IRA Contribution Deductibility

 

Conclusion

Participating in certain employer-sponsored retirement plans can affect an individual’s ability to deduct a traditional IRA contribution on an individual’s tax return for the year. The IRS Form W-2 should indicate active participation in an employer-sponsored retirement plan. When in doubt, taxpayers should check with their employers.

 

 

[1]  IRS Notice 87-16

 

© Copyright 2021 Retirement Learning Center, all rights reserved