Are Non-ERISA 403(b) Plans Protected in Bankruptcy?

Bankruptcy Questions About 403(b) Retirement PlansWhat is a 403(b) Plan?

403(b) retirement plans are generally available to employees of educational institutions and certain non-profit organizations as determined by section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.  The most common participants of the plan include teachers, school administrators, school personnel, nurses, doctors, professors, researchers, librarians, and ministers

How do I know if it’s protected?

When it comes to protection of retirement accounts, one of the first things we suggest clients do is find out if their plan is ERISA (Employee Retired Income Security Act of 1974) qualified.  We often hear clients ask “what is ERISA?”  Most people probably don’t even know whether their retirement account is ERISA qualified or not.  We’ve previously discussed why it is important your retirement is ERISA qualified in another blog post.  You can often find your ERISA rights in a plan summary provided by your human resources department or plan administrator. However, depending upon the type of retirement plan you have, it may not be ERISA qualified.

“I have confirmed the plan is non-ERISA, now what?”

Generally speaking, if your 403(b) retirement plan is non-ERISA, you are likely limited to protecting it with one option in bankruptcy.  This option is known as your “wild card” exemption.  However, your “wild card” exemption is limited to $5,000 in the state of North Carolina.  It’s rare that a 403(b) retirement plan is non-ERISA so be sure to have documented proof stating it is “non-ERISA”, just as you would for those that are ERISA.  It’s not often we come across a non-ERISA 403(b) retirement plan, so we would suggest being 100% certain it is not a qualified plan before assuming it is not.  Determining whether a plan is ERISA qualified may be the difference of being able to protect your retirement account so we strongly encourage our clients to take the time to make the necessary connections to find out.  If you are interested in filing bankruptcy, but are concerned about your retirement account because you believe it may be non-ERISA, contact a local bankruptcy attorney to find out your options.  A bankruptcy lawyer would then be able to get a better idea of the full situation and provide you with more information for protecting your personal property.

How Do I Know If My 401(k) is ERISA Qualified?

Flag IconIf you are filing bankruptcy and have a 401(k), your attorney will most likely ask you to provide proof that your 401(k) is ERISA qualified.  An ERISA qualified 401(k) is exempted or protected in bankruptcy.  Okay, you are asking yourself, what is ERISA qualified and where do I go to find it if my 401(k) is qualified?

First, ERISA is an acronym for Employee Retirement Income Security Act.  ERISA is a federal law setting the minimum protection standards for individuals contributing to pension and some health plans established by private companies.  ERISA does not apply to federal and state employees, since they are usually government retirement plans.   ERISA requires the private employer to provide information to you about the features of the plan, how it is funded, specific fiduciary responsibilities for management of the plan, etc.  For our purposes, we are specifically looking at retirement or 401(k) plans.

Most retirements plans meet the ERISA requirement.  Often your employer has a letter on file from the Internal Revenue Service that they will provide to you.  This letter states your company’s retirement plan has been reviewed and meets the minimum requirements under ERISA.  If you are unable to obtain the letter directly from your employer, you may contact the 401(k) administrator and ask them to provide you a copy of the plan summary.  You may even have access to your plan summary online.  In the table of contents, there may be a section that speaks about ERISA.  If not, quickly review your plan document and look for the word ERISA.  It may not specifically say your plan has been reviewed by the Internal Revenue Service and meets the ERISA requirements, but it will usually indicate the plan complies with ERISA reporting requirements.

Again, most employer sponsored 401(k) plans meet the requirements under ERISA.  However, it is something you want to verify prior to filing bankruptcy.  Often the bankruptcy Trustee will ask for a copy of your most recent 401(k) statement and a notice of ERISA qualification prior to or at your meeting of creditors.  If you should have any questions about your plan, speak with the administrator of your 401(k).

Will I Lose My Retirement If I File for Bankruptcy?

Generally speaking, no. However, there are always exceptions.

Most retirement plans are ERISA qualified, which stands for Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. This law was enacted to protect your retirement accounts from risky investments by your employer or plan administrator. If the plan is ERISA qualified, then your bankruptcy Trustee cannot seize your retirement money to pay your creditors.

Can I Protect My Retirement Plan?


Most personal property such as cash, bank accounts, furniture, clothes, and retirement plans can be protected by exemptions allowed by each state. Most people that file bankruptcy are allowed to keep most, if not all, of their personal property in bankruptcy.

What is an ERISA Qualified Plan and Why Do I Need it for My Bankruptcy Case?

Bankruptcy Questions About Retirement PlansIf you have recently filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy or a Chapter 13 bankruptcy it is important that you ensure your retirement plans are ERISA qualified.  The bankruptcy trustee, who represents your creditors, will probably require that you present him or her with evidence at the creditor’s meeting, showing that your retirement plan with your employer (if you have a retirement plan) is a ERISA qualified retirement plan. ERISA is the abbreviation for Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. This law was enacted to protect your retirement accounts from risky speculation by your employer or plan administrator so that when you retire, your money will be in the account and not lost by risky investments.

Most employer retirement plans are ERISA qualified plans. If the plan is ERISA qualified, or an IRA, the bankruptcy trustee cannot normally seize your retirement money to pay off your creditors. However, a very small percentage of retirement plans are not ERISA qualified and/or are not legitimate IRAs, and therefore are not protected. In this event, if you file bankruptcy, the trustee can take your retirement money. Don’t panic, if you work for a legitimate company, it is very likely that the plan is ERISA qualified or protected from your creditors.

Before you sign the official bankruptcy petition (not the worksheets), it is your responsibility to contact your employer or former employer with which you have the 401K, IRA, retirement plan, and obtain verification from the employer that the plan is ERISA qualified. We suggest you contact the employers personnel/payroll or human resources department for this information. They may refer you to the plan administrator, such as Fidelity or Charles Schwab, etc. for the information. It may take several weeks for them to send you this information, so don’t wait until a few days before the creditors meeting to request this information. Start working on it now!

Usually, you will need for your employer to send you documentation, such as a plan summary. This is the booklet you probably received when you originally signed up for the plan, or a letter on company letterhead from the plan administrator, stating that the plan is ERISA qualified and the dollar amount in the plan.

Do not bring only your quarterly statement your employer sends you. This is unacceptable to the trustee. You may bring the quarterly statement, but you must have the statement, usually called a plan summary, stating the plan is ERISA qualified.

You must have this documentation with you at the creditor’s meeting which will be scheduled approximately 4-6 weeks after you file bankruptcy. If you do not have the documentation, the trustee will usually allow you an additional 10 days to provide this to him/her. If you do not provide this documentation to the Trustee, the Trustee could ask the Judge permission to seize your retirement account and pay your creditors with this money.

In conclusion, make sure your retirement account is ERISA qualified before you file the bankruptcy. If you have any questions contact us today.