Q&A: Can creditors get your IRA funds?

Dear Liz: You recently wrote that workplace retirement plans offer unlimited protection from creditors but that IRAs are protected only up to $1,283,025. When I transferred my 401(k) to a rollover IRA, the advisors at the brokerage assured me that the rolled-over money also enjoys the unlimited protection. Your article seems to imply otherwise. Can you clarify what is the correct rule?

Answer: Two sets of rules apply, which causes a fair amount of confusion.

In bankruptcy court, your transferred money would be protected. Money rolled into an IRA from a workplace plan such as a 401(k) enjoys unlimited protection from creditors in bankruptcy filings. Outside of bankruptcy court, however, creditor protection is determined by your state’s laws, which may not be as generous. If someone successfully sues you and wins a judgment, for example, your IRA could be at risk.

Q&A: Your debt lives even after you die

Dear Liz: I live in a senior building and we had a discussion about our debt after we pass away. I said, “If we have any money in our estate, that will pay it off.” One woman who lives here claims that all you have to do is send in a copy of a death certificate and that will get rid of any debt. Hope you can settle this for us.

Answer: Debt doesn’t just disappear when someone dies. Whether and what creditors get paid, though, depends on a lot of factors.

After someone dies, the executor of the estate (or the personal representative, if the deceased had a living trust) is supposed to notify creditors of the death. The first bills to be paid usually are the costs of administering the estate, followed by secured debt such as mortgages, liens and so on, then the funeral and burial expenses, says Los Angeles estate planning attorney Andrew Steenbock. Next in line typically are medical bills from the final illness and the dead person’s last tax bill. Then other creditors are paid from what’s left, if anything. Only after creditors are paid can any remaining assets be distributed according to the will, trust or state law if there are no estate planning documents. If the estate is insolvent — with more debt than assets to pay those debts — then heirs typically get nothing and the creditors are paid a portionate amount of whatever assets are available.

Things can get more complicated if there is a surviving spouse or co-signer, since debt that’s jointly owed would become the survivor’s problem.

Ignoring these rules can have serious repercussions for the executor, who can become personally liable for mistakes made in settling an estate. If your neighbor’s executor ignores state law and distributes assets to heirs before paying off creditors, for example, the creditors could sue the executor. That’s a pretty powerful incentive for learning and obeying those rules.