Posted by: koherston | June 16, 2011

Garnishing Retirement Accounts to Satisfy Judgment for Attorney’s Fees: Massey v. Casals

Facts: In a post-divorce child support modification proceeding, Father was ordered to pay Mother’s attorney’s fees in the amount of $22,000. To satisfy this judgment, Mother issued garnishments against Father’s E*Trade IRA accounts. Father filed a motion to quash the garnishments, which motion was denied by the trial court. Father appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.

Father argued his IRA accounts were exempt from garnishment.

Tennessee Code Annotated § 26-2-105(b) provides:

Except as provided in subsection (c), any funds or other assets payable to a participant or beneficiary from, or any interest of any participant or beneficiary in, a retirement plan which is qualified under §§ 401(a), 403(a), 403(b), 408 and 408A, or an Archer medical savings account qualified under § 220 or a health savings account qualified under § 223 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended, are exempt from any and all claims of creditors of the participant or beneficiary, except the state of Tennessee. All records of the debtor concerning such plan and of the plan concerning the debtor’s participation in the plan, or interest in the plan, are exempt from the subpoena process.

This provision is limited by subsection 105(c), which provides that any plan described in subsection 105(b), except a public plan under subsection 105(a), is not exempt from the claims of an alternate payee under a qualified domestic relations order. Thus, subject to statutory limitations, Father’s IRA accounts with E*Trade are exempt from garnishment to satisfy a judgment for attorney’s fees if they constitute a retirement plan that is qualified under the enumerated sections of the Internal Revenue Code.

Mother argued that, under Tennessee Code Annotated § 26-2-111(1)(D), Father’s accounts do not qualify for the exemption provided by subsection 105(b) because the accounts “were all self-directed and under the complete control of” Father. Mother contended that a debtor is precluded from “claiming the exemption of an IRA account when the owner of the account can withdraw the funds contained in the account at any time.”

The Court reasoned:

Construing [Tennessee Code Annotated] sections 2-26-105(b) and 2-26-111(1)(D)(iii) together in light of the purpose of the statutory exemption scheme, we agree with the Attorney General that the legislature intended to encourage the citizens of Tennessee to save for their retirement and to protect retirement plans that qualify under the enumerated sections of the Internal Revenue Code. We believe the legislature also intended to limit the exemption to retirement plans that cannot, at the option of the debtor and without an involuntary penalty, such as a federally mandated tax penalty, be accessed by the debtor before 58-years of age, as a lump sum, or accelerated such that payments may be received over a period of 60 months or fewer. . . .

Virtually all IRA accounts may be accessed upon the payment of the penalty, and we cannot agree with [Mother] that the ability to encroach upon an IRA only by incurring a substantial tax penalty amounts to a “right” to receive funds. If, however, the debtor may, without a penalty prescribed by law, receive the assets as a lump-sum payment, in periodic payments over a period of 60 months or less, or before 58-years of age, the pension or retirement plan is not exempt. This interpretation is supported by the purpose of the exemption, the logical interplay between the statutory sections, and the majority of applicable case law. . . .

The unrefuted proof in this case is that [Father’s] accounts . . . were IRA accounts that qualify under section 408 of the Internal Revenue Code, and that [Father] had no right to access the assets in the accounts other than by incurring a substantial federal tax penalty. Accordingly, the accounts were exempt from garnishment under Tennessee Code Annotated § 26-21-05(b) and Tennessee Code Annotated § 26-2-111(1)(D). In light of the foregoing, the judgment of the trial court is reversed.

It should be noted the exemption is not a device through which one may be relieved of one’s obligation to support one’s children or shield one’s earnings from child support or alimony obligations.

Massey v. Casals (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, May 3, 2011).

Information provided by K.O. Herston, Tennessee Divorce Lawyer.


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