California state law and federal bankruptcy law protect your savings for retirement held in recognized retirement vehicles from levy or lien.
But retirement savings are at risk.
Look in the mirror.
The biggest threat to your retirement account isn’t your creditors, it’s you.
You are usually the only person who can withdraw money from an IRA or take a loan against your 401(k).
And your creditors would be happy to press you until you think that’s a good way out of a financial bind.
It is almost always a wretched idea.
M.O. of a debt collector
Debt collection through the courts is relatively inefficient and costly to the creditor.
Law suits require lawyers, filing fees, and a chance for the person sued to fight back. And even with a judgment, exemptions protect some assets from lien or levy by the creditor with a judgment.
How much better and cheaper if the creditor can “persuade” you to dip into an account that a creditor with a judgment couldn’t get to in order to pay the bill.
Toward that end, the debt collector will try
- shame, or
Whatever the method, they ratchet up the pressure until you think it’s smart to rob your retirement funds to solve today’s problem.
Are retirement savings ever the right answer
My instinctual answer is “no”.
But individuals and their situations are so varied that a flat no is probably too broad.
But only a bit.
The questions I’d ask myself before raiding retirement savings include
- How much working life do I have left to replenish my retirement
- Do I have an employer retirement plan to rely on
- Do I have other assets with equity to supplement retirement
- Is the bill to be paid with retirement savings just part of a bigger problem
The last question is probably the most important. Is resort to retirement savings a one time solution, or is it just the first, or the most recent, indicator that your bills are bigger than your ability to repay them?
If so, it’s time to talk with a bankruptcy lawyer. Understand what your options are. Look at the big picture that includes all of your debts and all of your assets.
You can probably find a better solution.
Image courtesy of Steve Calcott.
My thanks to Peter Mullison, whose post on retirement savings and bankruptcy sparked this perspective on the problem.