Aug / Sept 2019 : Bankruptcy Exemption May Not Apply To Retirement Benefits Received In Divorce – Lerbakken v Sieloff & Associates, PA, NO. 18-6018 (8th Cir. 2018)

View / Download Aug-Sept 2019 Article – PDF File

Tax Trends and Developments Column – Michigan Family Law Journal


Background

  • In his 2014 divorce settlement, Mr. Lerbakken (Mr. L) received half of his wife’s 401(k) account and 100% of her IRA.
  • He subsequently filed for bankruptcy protection. One of his creditors was Sieloff & Associates. The firm that handled Mr. L’s divorce and remained unpaid.
  • Mr. L claimed that the 401(k) account and the IRA received in the divorce were exempt from claims of creditors as retirement assets under 11 U.S.C. Section 522(d)(12).
  • The bankruptcy court disallowed Mr. L’s claimed exemption for the 401(k) and the IRA.
  • Mr. L. appealed to the 8th Circuit Court.

8th Circuit Court Ruling

  • The 8th Circuit Court (Court) upheld the lower court’s disallowance of the exemption.
  • The Court referred to a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that an inherited IRA did not qualify as a retirement asset qualifying for the bankruptcy exemption. Clark v Rameker, 134 SCt 2242 (2014).
  • In so ruling, the United States Supreme Court indicated that retirement funds for purposes of the bankruptcy exemption meant funds set aside to be available when one stopped working and, hence, did not apply to an inherited IRA.
  • The Court ruled that a retirement asset received as part of a property settlement does not qualify for the exemption either.
  • The Court was not swayed by Mr. L’s claim that his wife’s 401(k) and IRA were accumulated specifically for their joint retirement.
  • It was also noted that Mr. L had not rolled the assigned funds into his own retirement account. He could not even produce a QDRO indicating that he had accessed his as-signed share of the 401(k).

Comments on the Case

  • The Court seemed to narrowly construe the statute since, as Mr. L asserted, the funds in question were in fact set aside for his and his former wife’s retirement.
  • The division of the parties’ retirement assets is frequently done with the objective of providing each party with sufficient financial security for retirement years.
  • Where bankruptcy is a possibility, to lessen the chances of what happened to Mr. L, retirement funds received in a divorce should be accessed promptly and rolled into one’s own retirement account.
  • QDRO preparation and processing should be attended to forthwith after a divorce.

About the Author

Joe Cunningham has over 25 years of experience specializing in financial and tax aspects of divorce, including business valuation, valuing and dividing retirement benefits, and developing settlement proposals. He has lectured extensively for ICLE, the Family Law Section, and the MACPA. Joe is also the author of numerous journal articles and chapters in family law treatises. His office is in Troy, though his practice is statewide.

Download the PDF file below… “Bankruptcy Exemption May Not Apply To Retirement Benefits Received In Divorce – Lerbakken v Sieloff & Associates, PA, NO. 18-6018 (8th Cir. 2018)”
View / Download Aug-Sept 2019 Article – PDF File

Complete Michigan Family Law Journal available at: Michigan Bar website – Family Law Section (subscription required)

November 2018 : Beware: Spousal Support Tax Treatment Changes January 1, 2019

View / Download November 2018 Article – PDF File

As previously reported in this column, the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (Act), signed into law in December 2017, radically changes the tax treatment of alimony/spousal support beginning in 2019. The other changes made by the Act affecting divorce took effect January 1, 2018.

Thus, there is a small window within which to decide whether to have existing law – or the new law – apply to divorces that can be finalized this year or next.

The New Law

In a total reversal, alimony/spousal support will not be deductible by the payer or taxable to the payee for divorce and separation judgments and decrees entered on or after December 31, 2018.

This also applies to modified judgments of divorce or separation effective after 2018.

Additionally, it applies to divorce and separation decrees entered before December 31, 2018 if the parties elect to have
the new law apply.

The Act is Not Applicable to Divorce and Separation Decrees Entered Before December 31, 2018

For all existing divorce settlements and those entered by year-end, alimony will continue to be taxable/deductible.

Hence, a window of opportunity before year-end for the many situations in which the alimony payer is in a meaningfully higher tax bracket than the payee. This has set the stage for creative uses of “Section 71 payments” under which the disparity in tax brackets can be used to provide a tax subsidy. Examples include using Section 71 payments to:

  • Divide non-qualified deferred compensation on a taxable/ deductible basis.
  • Structure installment payments of a business buy-out of the non-owner spouse’s marital interest on a taxable/deductible basis.
  • Pay attorney fees on a taxable/deductible basis.

However, after 2018, these opportunities and similar others will no longer be available. In situations where there is significant disparity in brackets, using Section 71 payments in such circumstances may no longer be beneficial.

Effect of Judgment Amendments Post 2018

If a pre-2019 divorce or separation judgment or decree is amended on or after December 31, 2018, the new nontaxable/nondeductible law applies.

Query: Would this be the result even if the amendment does not pertain to spousal support? If the answer has not become clear by year-end, the distinct possibility of losing taxable/deductible status of spousal support payments must be considered before advising the post-2018 amendment of a pre-2019 judgment providing for taxable/deductible alimony.

Fundamental Change in the Dynamic of Alimony/Spousal Support

When the alimony deduction was enacted in 1948, the theory was that, if a former family’s income is split between the parties in some manner post-divorce, the tax treatment should correspond.

The result in many cases has been less combined tax paid on the payer’s income. Because of budgetary concerns—including the enormous cost of the Act—eliminating the alimony deduction became a revenue raising option to help alleviate the Act’s deficit-increasing effect.

This creates a new paradigm for divorce practitioners and alimony guideline providers. That is, we will need to think in terms of after-tax dollars for spousal support, similar to child support.

How to Avoid Paying Alimony with After-Tax Dollars Under the New Law?

One approach is to negate the adverse tax consequences of the new law by using 401(k) funds. As we know, more and more employees have 401(k) accounts than in years past.

Example

  • H, 40 years old, is a middle-management employee at a small company. He earns $60,000 a year. He has a combined 26% federal-state income tax bracket.
  • W is a stay-at-home mom who works part time and earns $10,000 annually. Hence, as head-of-household, her standard deduction offsets her income for federal taxable tax. Her income is subject to minimal Michigan tax.
  • The parties agree on alimony of $1,250 a month, i.e., $15,000 annually, for 5 years when their youngest child will be either working or in community college.
  • H has a 401(k) balance of $150,000, which is split evenly with W receiving $75,000 and H receiving $75,000.
  • In addition to W receiving her $75,000 share, the parties agree that H will transfer his $75,000 share of the 401(k) to W in lieu of spousal support. She can withdraw $15,000 annually, paying approximately $2,000 in tax. H will pay W $2,000 per year to reimburse her for the taxes she will pay on her withdrawals. Thus, W will have $15,000 per year, which is $1,250 a month after-tax spousal support.
  • While W ends up with $15,000 a year after tax either way, using the 401(k) account saves H tax as follows:
Not Use 401(k) Use 401(k)
Payments Over 5 Years:
Payments $75,000 $10,000
Tax at 26% to Provide Funds $26,000 $3,500
401(k) Funds 0 $75,000
Total Cost to H $101,000 $88,500

Observations

  1. The example shows that, in relatively modest circumstances, use of a 401(k) account can result in considerable tax savings.
  2. It provides a means of using pre-tax dollars to fund aftertax obligations – an advantage where there is disparity in brackets.
  3. In the example, the tax on H’s $75,000 share of the 401(k) was shifted to W – at her lower bracket – incident to satisfying his after-tax spousal support obligation.
  4. At 40, H has ample time for his 401(k) account to be replenished.
  5. Using 401(k) funds for a spousal support obligation as shown in the example requires that the plan allow for annual withdrawals, Many plans do not do so. But, a small business plan, as in the example, often does.
  6. A 401(k) account can be used for other purposes, such as buying out the other spouse’s marital interest in (1) a business or (2) a cottage up north.

About the Author

Joe Cunningham has over 25 years of experience specializing in financial and tax aspects of divorce, including business valuation, valuing and dividing retirement benefits, and developing settlement proposals. He has lectured extensively for ICLE, the Family Law Section, and the MACPA. Joe is also the author of numerous journal articles and chapters in family law treatises. His office is in Troy, though his practice is statewide.

Download the PDF file below… “Beware: Spousal Support Tax Treatment Changes January 1, 2019”
View / Download November 2018 Article – PDF File

Complete Michigan Family Law Journal available at: Michigan Bar website – Family Law Section (subscription required)

Aug / Sept 2017 : In a Published Case, Court of Appeals Approves Entry of QDRO 12 Years Post Date of Divorce–JOUGHIN, No. 329993 (7/11/2017)

Michigan Family Law Journal : TAX TRENDS AND DEVELOPMENTS Feature

by Joseph W. Cunningham, JD, CPA

Facts

  • H and W were divorced on April 28, 2003.
  • The Judgment of Divorce (JOD) awarded W (1) 50% of H’s pension accrued as of April 30, 2002 and (2) $23,823 from his profit-sharing plan account.
  • The JOD provided that both parties “shall cooperate” in obtaining and processing the QDROs necessary to effectuate the transfers to W.
  • For reasons not apparent on the record, the QDROs were not promptly filed. Instead, W submitted the QDROs for entry with the trial court on June 30, 2015- more than 12 years post-divorce.
  • H objected claiming that W’s submission of the QDROs for entry was an attempt to enforce the 2003 JOD and, hence, was time-barred under MCL 600.5809(3), which provides a 10-year statute of limitations applicable to attempts to enforce a noncontractual money obligation.
  • W responded that because her claim did not arise until H reached retirement age, that the statute had not yet begun to run.
  • Because H had not retired nor received any of his retirement benefits, the trial court entered the QDROs.
  • H appealed.

Court of Appeals Decision

  • The Court disagreed with the parties’ position that MCL 600.5809 applied to entry of a QDRO.
  • Rather, the Court cited a previous decision that “when a judgment of divorce requires a QDRO to be entered, the QDRO is to be considered as part of the divorce judgment.”
  • Accordingly, the Court stated that “because the QDRO is part of the judgment, it necessarily cannot be viewed as enforcing the same judgment.” *** “Instead, we hold that under these circumstances, the act to obtain entry of a proposed QDRO is a ministerial task done in conjunction with the divorce judgment itself.”
  • Thus, the Court concluded that entry of the QDROs was not time-barred
  • Judge Kathleen Jansen wrote a vigorous dissent claiming, for various reasons, that entry of the QDRO after 10 years was barred by the statute of limitations.

Comments on the Case

  • Obviously, the case is a “poster child” for the importance of preparing and processing QDROs promptly – either contemporaneous with entry of the divorce judgment or soon thereafter.
  • Based on many years’ experience of preparing QDROs for legal aid clients under a pro bono program administered by the State Bar, QDROs unfiled for years following divorce are not uncommon. This case – a rare family law published case – indicates that the passage of 10 years or more does not bar entry of a QDRO.
  • However, in Joughin, the participant had not begun to receive benefits. Had he done so, or remarried, or died, the situation would likely have been much more problematic for the alternate payee.
  • And, the Joughin judgment provision reprinted in the Court’s opinion did not provide that W’s share of H’s profit-sharing plan account would be adjusted proportionately for gains or losses of plan investments. With the sharp advance of the stock market from 2003 through 2015, W paid a high price for not timely attending to the QDROs.
  • In this regard, there is no precedent regarding whether the right to receive a proportional share of plan gains and losses passes automatically under state law with the transfer via QDRO of an interest in an account balance plan such as a 401(k) or profit-sharing plan as in Joughin.
  • Unless transferring a set dollar amount, it is highly advisable to include such a provision in both the JOD and the QDRO.

About the Author

Joe Cunningham has over 25 years of experience specializing in financial and tax aspects of divorce, including business valuation, valuing and dividing retirement benefits, and developing settlement proposals. He has lectured extensively for ICLE, the Family Law Section, and the MACPA. Joe is also the author of numerous journal articles and chapters in family law treatises. His office is in Troy, though his practice is statewide.

Download PDF file below… “In a Published Case, Court of Appeals Approves Entry of QDRO 12 Years Post Date of Divorce–JOUGHIN, No. 329993 (7/11/2017)”
View / Download Aug-Sept 2017 Article – PDF File

Complete Michigan Family Law Journal available at: Michigan Bar website – Family Law Section (subscription required)

Aug / Sept 2016 : Tax Affecting Plan Loans – Should the Participant Receive a Credit Against Future Tax for Loans Drawn and Used During Marriage?

Michigan Family Law Journal : TAX TRENDS AND DEVELOPMENTS Feature

by Joseph W. Cunningham, JD, CPA

Excerpt:

Consider the following example:

  1. Parties – A and B – were married on 7/1/96 and divorced 20 years later on 6/30/16
  2. B has been a participant in her employer’s 401(k) plan since before marriage. At marriage, the account balance was $30,000.
  3. B had no plan loan balance at time of marriage, but she drew a $50,000 loan from the plan during marriage to provide funds for a family vacation home in northern Michigan.
  4. At divorce, the 401(k) account consisted of $100,000 in investments and a remaining loan balance of $20,000.
  5. Since the loan funds were used for marital purposes, the unpaid plan loan is a marital debt.
  6. Based on these facts, A and B will divide the $70,000 net increase in the account during marriage. A’s $35,000 will be paid from non-loan plan assets.
  7. B will also receive $35,000 of non-loan assets as well as the $20,000 plan loan receivable for which she is responsible to repay (essentially, to herself).
  8. The following presents the division of the account value, including the plan loan receivable.

……

Continued in PDF file below… “Tax Affecting Plan Loans – Should the Participant Receive a Credit Against Future Tax for Loans Drawn and Used During Marriage?”
View / Download August/Sept 2016 Article – PDF File

Complete Michigan Family Law Journal available at: Michigan Bar website – Family Law Section (subscription required)

June / July 2016 : Changing Beneficiary Designations

Michigan Family Law Journal : TAX TRENDS AND DEVELOPMENTS Feature

by Joseph W. Cunningham, JD, CPA

Excerpt:

Two recent Court of Appeals decisions on disposition of (1) 401(k) account and (2) life insurance proceeds in disputes between decedents’ estates and former spouses who were the named beneficiaries. Patrick Estate v. Freedman, Mich App No. 324438 (2/11/16); Lett Estate v. Henson, Mich App No. 326657 (3/17/16).

Facts – Patrick Estate v Freedman (Unpublished)

  • During their marriage, H designated W beneficiary of his 401(k) plan account.
  • In their 2007 consent judgment of divorce (JOD), it was provided that W be designated beneficiary for the amount assigned to her if H died before her share was segregated into an account for her.
  • e JOD also provided – “Except as otherwise provided herein, any rights of either party as beneficiary in any pol- icy or contract of life, endowment or annuity insurance of the other, as beneficiary, are hereby extinguished.”
  • And further – “Except as otherwise stated herein, each party shall retain exclusively any retirement benefits to which they are or shall become entitled to due to their employment, and any claim thereto by the other as beneficiary or otherwise is extinguished.”
  • H died in 2014 without having changed the beneficiary designation.
  • At W’s request, the plan administrator distributed the proceeds of H’s 401(k) account to her.
  • H’s estate led a complaint claiming that she was not en- titled to the 401(k) account.
  • e trial court ruled that while it was proper for the plan to distribute the 401(k) account proceeds to W, the beneficiary on record, but, under the terms of the JOD, she did not have the right to retain them.
  • W appealed.

Court of Appeals Decision…

Continued in PDF file below… “Changing Beneficiary Designations”
View / Download June/July 2016 Article – PDF File

Complete Michigan Family Law Journal available at: Michigan Bar website – Family Law Section (subscription required)