On June 12, 2014, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in Clark v. Rameker, Dkt. No. 13-299, 573 U.S. ___ (2014), holding that funds held in inherited Individual Retirement Accounts are not “retirement funds” within the meaning of 11 U.S.C. § 522(b)(3)(c) and therefore not exempt from the bankruptcy estate. This opinion limits retirement funds that remain out of creditors’ reach when an individual files a bankruptcy case.

In Clark, Heidi Clark inherited a traditional IRA account established by her mother. Clark then filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case and claimed the inherited IRA account as exempt from the bankruptcy estate under Section 522(b)(3)(C). The trustee and unsecured creditors objected, arguing that the inherited IRA funds were not “retirement funds” within the meaning of the statute.

The Court distinguished between inherited IRAs and traditional IRAs, noting that holders of inherited IRAs are prohibited from making contributions to those accounts, setting them apart from traditional retirement accounts; that holders of inherited IRAs are required to withdraw money from such accounts, regardless of how many years they may be from retirement; and that holders of inherited IRAs may withdraw the entire balance of the account at any time and for any purpose, without penalty. Observing that the funds in an inherited IRA could be spent on even a “vacation home or a sports car,” the Court expressed concern that allowing an inherited IRA to be exempt from the bankruptcy estate would convert the Bankruptcy Code’s purposes of providing a “fresh start” into a “free pass.”

The Clark opinion resolves a split among Circuits. The Fifth Circuit ruled in In re Chilton, 674 F. 3d 486 (5th Cir. 2012) that inherited IRAs constituted retirement funds within the “plain meaning” of § 522 of the Bankruptcy Code and were thus exempt from the bankruptcy estate, under § 522(d)(12) (the federal exemptions). The Seventh Circuit, in Clark, disagreed, emphasizing that the Bankruptcy Code should not be used to exempt from creditors’ reach funds that were freely accessible for current use by the debtor, without penalty.

Although Clark excludes inherited IRAs from exemption under Section 522(b)(3)(c), some states, including Missouri, provide a separate exemption for inherited IRAs under state law. The Clark decision is not likely to affect bankruptcy cases and practices in these states.

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