The U.S. Supreme Court in
1992 settled a conflict
among the Circuit Courts
regarding the question of
whether a creditor can reach a
debtor's qualified retirement
plan interests to satisfy his
claim. In Patterson v.
Shumate, a unanimous Court
held that a participant's
interest in an ERISA qualified
retirement plan is protected
from the claims of his creditors
U.S. Supreme Court
PATTERSON v. SHUMATE, 504 U.S. 753 (1992)
504 U.S. 753
R. PATTERSON, TRUSTEE, PETITIONER v. JOSEPH B.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR
THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
Argued April 20, 1992
Decided June 15, 1992
Respondent Shumate was a participant in his
employer's pension plan, which contained the
antialienation provision required for tax
qualification under the Employee Retirement Income
Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The District Court
rejected his contention that his interest in the
plan should be excluded from his bankruptcy estate
under 541(c)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code, which
excludes property of the debtor that is subject to a
restriction on transfer enforceable under
"applicable nonbankruptcy law." The court held,
inter alia, that the latter phrase embraces only
state law, not federal law such as ERISA, and that
Shumate's interest in the plan did not qualify for
protection as a spendthrift trust under state law.
The court ordered that Shumate's interest in the
plan be paid over to petitioner, as trustee of
Shumate's bankruptcy estate. The Court of Appeals
reversed, ruling that the interest should be
excluded from the bankruptcy estate under 541(c)(2).
The plain language of the Bankruptcy Code and
ERISA establishes that an antialienation provision
in a qualified pension plan constitutes a
restriction on transfer enforceable under
"applicable nonbankruptcy law" for purposes of
541(c)(2). Pp. 757-766.
Plainly read, 541(c)(2) encompasses any relevant
nonbankruptcy law, including federal law such as
ERISA. The section contains no limitation on
"applicable nonbankruptcy law" relating to the
source of the law, and its text nowhere suggests
that that phrase refers, as petitioner contends,
exclusively to state law. Other sections in the
Bankruptcy Code reveal that Congress knew how to
restrict the scope of applicable law to "state law"
and did so with some frequency. Its use of the
broader phrase "applicable nonbankruptcy law"
strongly suggests that it did not intend to restrict
541(c)(2) in the manner petitioner contends. Pp.
The antialienation provision contained in this ERISA-qualified
plan satisfies the literal terms of 541(c)(2). The
sections of ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code
requiring a plan to provide that benefits may not be
assigned or alienated clearly impose a "restriction
on the transfer" of a debtor's "beneficial interest"
within 541(c)(2)'s meaning, and the terms of the
plan provision in question comply with those
requirements. Moreover, the transfer restrictions
are "enforceable," as
U.S. 753, 754] required by 541(c)(2), since
ERISA gives participants the right to sue to enjoin
acts that violate that statute or the plan's terms.
Given the clarity of the statutory text, petitioner
bears an "exceptionally heavy" burden of persuasion
that Congress intended to limit the 541(c)(2)
exclusion to restrictions on transfer that are
enforceable only under state spendthrift trust law.
Union Bank v. Wolas, 502 U.S. 151 155-156. He has
not satisfied that burden, since his several
challenges to the Court's interpretation of
541(c)(2) - that it is refuted by contemporaneous
legislative materials, that it renders superfluous
the 522(d)(10)(E) debtor's exemption for pension
payments, and that it frustrates the Bankruptcy
Code's policy of ensuring a broad inclusion of
assets in the bankruptcy estate - are unpersuasive.
943 F.2d 362 (CA 4 1991),
BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous
Court. SCALIA, J., filed a concurring opinion, post,
G. Steven Agee argued the cause
and filed briefs for petitioner.
Kevin R. Huennekens argued the cause for
respondent. With him on the brief were Robert A.
Lefkowitz and Daniel A. Gecker.
Christopher J. Wright argued the cause for the
United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance.
With him on the brief were Solicitor General Starr,
Acting Assistant Attorney General Bruton, Deputy
Solicitor General Mahoney, Gary D. Gray, and Bridget
David B. Tatge, pro se, filed a brief of amicus
curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief was
Dwight D. Meier.
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were
filed for the American Society of Pension Actuaries
by David R. Levin; for the Chamber of Commerce of
the United States of America by Stephen A. Bokat,
Robin S. Conrad, and Mona C. Zeiberg; for the Erisa
Industry Committee et al. by John M. Vine and Thomas
M. Christina; for Hallmark Cards, Inc., by M.
Theresa Hupp, David C. Trowbridge, and James B.
Overman; for Lincoln National Corporation by Brian
J. Martin; for Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., et al. by
Phillip R. Garrison; and for Ronald J. Wyles et al.
by David H. Adams.
Briefs of amici curiae were filed for the
American College of Trust and Estate Counsel by
Alvin J. Golden and C. Wells Hall III; and for Eldon
S. Reed by Cathy L. Reece and Gary H. Ashby.
U.S. 753, 755]
JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the
The Bankruptcy Code excludes from the bankruptcy
estate property of the debtor that is subject to a
restriction on transfer enforceable under
"applicable nonbankruptcy law." 11 U.S.C. 541(c)(2).
We must decide in this case whether an
antialienation provision contained in an ERISA-qualified
pension plan constitutes a restriction on transfer
enforceable under "applicable nonbankruptcy law,"
and whether, accordingly, a debtor may exclude his
interest in such a plan from the property of the
Respondent Joseph B. Shumate, Jr., was employed
for over 30 years by Coleman Furniture Corporation,
where he ultimately attained the position of
president and chairman of the board of directors.
Shumate and approximately 400 other employees were
participants in the Coleman Furniture Corporation
Pension Plan (Plan). The Plan satisfied all
applicable requirements of the Employee Retirement
Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and qualified
for favorable tax treatment under the Internal
Revenue Code. In particular, Article 16.1 of the
Plan contained the antialienation provision required
for qualification under 206(d)(1) of ERISA, 29 U.S.C.
1056(d)(1) ("Each pension plan shall provide that
benefits provided under the plan may not be assigned
or alienated"). App. 342. Shumate's interest in the
Plan was valued at $250,000. App. at 93-94.
In 1982, Coleman Furniture filed a petition for
bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code.
The case was converted to a Chapter 7 proceeding,
and a trustee, Roy V. Creasy, was appointed. Shumate
himself encountered financial difficulties and filed
a petition for bankruptcy in 1984. His case, too,
was converted to a Chapter 7 proceeding, and
petitioner John R. Patterson was appointed trustee.
Creasy terminated and liquidated the Plan,
providing full distributions to all participants
except Shumate. Patterson
[504 U.S. 753, 756] then filed an adversary proceeding
against Creasy in the Bankruptcy Court for the
Western District of Virginia to recover Shumate's
interest in the Plan for the benefit of Shumate's
bankruptcy estate. Shumate, in turn, asked the
United States District Court for the Western
District of Virginia, which already had jurisdiction
over a related proceeding, to compel Creasy to pay
Shumate's interest in the Plan directly to him. The
bankruptcy proceeding subsequently was consolidated
with the District Court action. App. to Pet. for
The District Court rejected Shumate's contention
that his interest in the Plan should be excluded
from his bankruptcy estate. The court held that
541(c)(2)'s reference to "nonbankruptcy law"
embraced only state law, not federal law such as
ERISA. Creasy v. Coleman Furniture Corp., 83 B.R.
404, 406 (1988). Applying Virginia law, the court
held that Shumate's interest in the Plan did not
qualify for protection as a spendthrift trust. Id.,
at 406-409. The District Court also rejected
Shumate's alternative argument that even if his
interest in the Plan could not be excluded from the
bankruptcy estate under 541(c)(2), he was entitled
to an exemption under 11 U.S.C. 522(b)(2)(A), which
allows a debtor to exempt from property of the
estate "any property that is exempt under Federal
law." Id., at 409-410. The District Court ordered
Creasy to pay Shumate's interest in the Plan over to
his bankruptcy estate. App. to Pet. for Cert.
The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
reversed. 943 F.2d 362 (1991). The court relied on
its earlier decision in In re Moore, 907 F.2d 1476
(1990), in which another Fourth Circuit panel was
described as holding, subsequent to the District
Court's decision in the instant case, that "ERISA-qualified
plans, which by definition have a non-alienation
provision, constitute `applicable nonbankruptcy law'
and contain enforceable restrictions on the transfer
of pension interests." 943 F.2d, at 365. Thus, the
U.S. 753, 757] Appeals held that Shumate's
interest in the Plan should be excluded from the
bankruptcy estate under 541(c)(2). Ibid. The court
then declined to consider Shumate's alternative
argument that his interest in the Plan qualified for
exemption under 522(b). Id., at 365-366.
We granted certiorari, 502 U.S. 1057 (1992), to
resolve the conflict among the Courts of Appeals as
to whether an antialienation provision in an ERISA-qualified
pension plan constitutes a restriction on transfer
enforceable under "applicable nonbankruptcy law" for
purposes of the 541(c)(2) exclusion of property from
the debtor's bankruptcy estate.
In our view, the plain language of the Bankruptcy
Code and ERISA is our determinant. See Toibb v.
Radloff, 501 U.S. 157, 160 (1991). Section 541(c)(2)
provides the following exclusion from the otherwise
broad definition of "property of the estate"
contained in 541(a)(1) of the Code:
restriction on the transfer of a beneficial interest
of the debtor in a trust that is enforceable under
applicable nonbankruptcy law is enforceable in a
case under this title." (emphasis added).
U.S. 753, 758]
The natural reading of the
provision entitles a debtor to exclude from property
of the estate any interest in a plan or trust that
contains a transfer restriction enforceable under
any relevant nonbankruptcy law. Nothing in 541
suggests that the phrase "applicable nonbankruptcy
law" refers, as petitioner contends, exclusively to
state law. The text contains no limitation on
"applicable nonbankruptcy law" relating to the
source of the law.
Reading the term "applicable nonbankruptcy law"
in 541(c)(2) to include federal as well as state law
comports with other references in the Bankruptcy
Code to sources of law. The Code reveals,
significantly, that Congress, when it desired to do
so, knew how to restrict the scope of applicable law
to "state law," and did so with some frequency. See,
e.g., 11 U.S.C. 109(c)(2) (entity may be a debtor
under chapter 9 if authorized "by State law");
522(b)(1) (election of exemptions controlled by "the
State law that is applicable to the debtor");
523(a)(5) (a debt for alimony, maintenance, or
support determined "in accordance with State or
territorial law" is not dischargeable); 903(1) ("[A]
State law prescribing a method of composition of
indebtedness" of municipalities is not binding on
nonconsenting creditors); see also 362(b)(12) and
1145(a). Congress' decision to use the broader
phrase "applicable nonbankruptcy law" in 541(c)(2)
strongly suggests that it did not intend to restrict
the provision in the manner that petitioner
[504 U.S. 753, 759]
The text of 541(c)(2) does not support
petitioner's contention that "applicable
nonbankruptcy law" is limited to state law. Plainly
read, the provision encompasses any relevant
nonbankruptcy law, including federal law such as
ERISA. We must enforce the statute according to its
terms. See United States v. Ron Pair Enterprises,
Inc., 489 U.S. 235, 241 (1989).
Having concluded that "applicable nonbankruptcy
law" is not limited to state law, we next determine
whether the antialienation provision contained in
the ERISA-qualified plan at issue here satisfies the
literal terms of 541(c)(2).
Section 206(d)(1) of ERISA, which states that "[e]ach
pension plan shall provide that benefits provided
under the plan may not be assigned or alienated," 29
U.S.C. 1056(d)(1), clearly imposes a "restriction on
the transfer" of a debtor's "beneficial interest" in
the trust. The coordinate section of the Internal
Revenue Code, 26 U.S.C. 401(a)(13), states as a
general rule that "[a] trust shall not constitute a
qualified trust under this section unless the plan
of which such trust is a part provides that benefits
provided under the plan may not be assigned or
alienated," and thus contains similar restrictions.
See also 26 CFR 1.401(a)-13(b)(1) (1991).
Coleman Furniture's pension plan complied with
these requirements. Article 16.1 of the Plan
specifically stated: "No benefit, right or interest"
of any participant "shall be subject
[504 U.S. 753, 760] to anticipation, alienation, sale,
transfer, assignment, pledge, encumbrance or charge,
seizure, attachment or other legal, equitable or
other process. App. 342.
Moreover, these transfer restrictions are
"enforceable," as required by 541(c)(2). Plan
trustees or fiduciaries are required under ERISA to
discharge their duties "in accordance with the
documents and instruments governing the plan." 29
U.S.C. 1104(a)(1)(D). A plan participant,
beneficiary, or fiduciary, or the Secretary of
Labor, may file a civil action to "enjoin any act or
practice" which violates ERISA or the terms of the
plan. 1132(a)(3) and (5). Indeed, this Court itself
vigorously has enforced ERISA's prohibition on the
assignment or alienation of pension benefits,
declining to recognize any implied exceptions to the
broad statutory bar. See Guidry v. Sheet Metal
Workers Nat. Pension Fund, 493 U.S. 365 (1990).
The antialienation provision required for ERISA
qualification and contained in the Plan at issue in
this case thus constitutes an enforceable transfer
restriction for purposes of 541(c)(2)'s exclusion of
property from the bankruptcy estate.
Petitioner raises several challenges to this
conclusion. Given the clarity of the statutory text,
however, he bears an "exceptionally heavy" burden of
persuading us that Congress intended to limit the
541(c)(2) exclusion to restrictions on transfer that
are enforceable only under state spendthrift trust
law. Union Bank v. Wolas, 502 U.S. 151, 155 -156
[504 U.S. 753, 761]
Petitioner first contends that contemporaneous
legislative materials demonstrate that 541(c)(2)'s
exclusion of property from the bankruptcy estate
should not extend to a debtor's interest in an ERISA-qualified
pension plan. Although courts "appropriately may
refer to a statute's legislative history to resolve
statutory ambiguity," Toibb v. Radloff, 501 U.S., at
___ (slip op. 5), the clarity of the statutory
language at issue in this case obviates the need for
any such inquiry. See ibid.; United States v. Ron
Pair Enterprises, Inc., 489 U.S., at 241 ; Davis v.
Michigan Dept. of Treasury, 489 U.S. 803, 809 , n. 3
Even were we to consider the legislative
materials to which petitioner refers, however, we
could discern no "clearly expressed legislative
intention" contrary to the result reached above. See
Consumer Product Safety Comm'n v. GTE Sylvania,
Inc., 447 U.S. 102, 108 (1980). In his brief,
petitioner quotes from House and Senate Reports
accompanying the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978 that
purportedly reflect "unmistakable" congressional
intent to limit 541(c)(2)'s exclusion to pension
plans that qualify under state law as spendthrift
trusts. Brief for Petitioner 38. Those reports
contain only the briefest of discussions addressing
541(c)(2). The House Report states: "Paragraph (2)
of subsection (c) . . . preserves restrictions on
transfer of a spendthrift trust to the extent that
the restriction is enforceable under applicable
nonbankruptcy law." H.R.Rep. No. 95595, p. 369
(1977); see also S.Rep. No. 95989, p. 83 (1978),
U.S. Code Cong. & Admin.News 1978, pp. 5787, 5869,
6325 ( 541(c)(2) "preserves restrictions on a
transfer of a spendthrift trust"). A general
introductory section to
U.S. 753, 762] the House Report contains
the additional statement that the new law "continues
over the exclusion from property of the estate of
the debtor's interest in a spendthrift trust to the
extent the trust is protected from creditors under
applicable State law." H.R.Rep. No. 95595, p. 176,
U.S. Code Cong. & Admin.News 1978, p. 6136. These
meager excerpts reflect, at best, congressional
intent to include state spendthrift trust law within
the meaning of "applicable nonbankruptcy law." By no
means do they provide a sufficient basis for
concluding, in derogation of the statute's clear
language, that Congress intended to exclude other
state and federal law from the provision's scope.
Petitioner next contends that our construction of
541(c)(2), pursuant to which a debtor may exclude
his interest in an ERISA-qualified pension plan from
the bankruptcy estate, renders 522(d)(10)(E) of the
Bankruptcy Code superfluous. Brief for Petitioner
24-33. Under 522(d)(10)(E), a debtor who elects the
federal exemptions set forth in 522(d) may exempt
from the bankruptcy estate his right to receive "a
payment under a stock bonus, pension,
profit-sharing, annuity, or similar plan or contract
. . ., to the extent reasonably necessary for the
support of the debtor and any dependent of the
debtor." If a debtor's interest in a pension plan
could be excluded in full from the bankruptcy
estate, the argument goes, then there would have
been no reason for Congress to create a limited
exemption for such interests elsewhere in the
Petitioner's surplusage argument fails, however,
for the reason that 522(d)(10)(E) exempts from the
bankruptcy estate a much broader category of
interests than 541(c)(2) excludes. For example,
pension plans established by governmental entities
and churches need not comply with Subchapter I of
ERISA, including the antialienation requirement of
206(d)(1). See 29 U.S.C. 1003(b)(1) and (2); 26 CFR
1.401(a)-13(a) (1991). So, too, pension plans that
U.S. 753, 763] qualify for preferential tax
treatment under 26 U.S.C. 408 (individual retirement
accounts) are specifically excepted from ERISA's
antialienation requirement. See 29 U.S.C. 1051(6).
Although a debtor's interest in these plans could
not be excluded under 541(c)(2) because the plans
lack transfer restrictions enforceable under
"applicable nonbankruptcy law," that interest
5 nevertheless could be exempted under
522(d)(10)(E). Once petitioner concedes that
522(d)(10)(E)'s exemption applies to more than ERISA-qualified
plans containing antialienation provisions, see Tr.
of Oral Arg. 10-11; Brief for Petitioner 31, his
argument that our reading of 541(c)(2) renders the
exemption provision superfluous must collapse.
Finally, petitioner contends that our holding
frustrates the Bankruptcy Code's policy of ensuring
a broad inclusion of assets in the bankruptcy
estate. See Brief for Petitioner at 37; 11 U.S.C.
541(a)(1) (estate composed of "all legal or
equitable interests of the debtor in property as of
the commencement of the case"). As an initial
matter, we think that petitioner
U.S. 753, 764] mistakes an admittedly broad
definition of includable property for a "policy"
underlying the Code as a whole. In any event, to the
extent that policy considerations are even relevant
where the language of the statute is so clear, we
believe that our construction of 541(c)(2) is
preferable to the one petitioner urges upon us.
First, our decision today ensures that the
treatment of pension benefits will not vary based on
the beneficiary's bankruptcy status. See Butner v.
United States, 440 U.S. 48, 55 (1979) (observing
that "[u]niform treatment of property interests"
prevents "a party from `receiving a windfall merely
by reason of the happenstance of bankruptcy,'"
quoting Lewis v. Manufacturers National Bank, 364
U.S. 603, 609 (1961)). We previously have declined
to recognize any exceptions to ERISA's
antialienation provision outside the bankruptcy
context. See Guidry v. Sheet Metal Workers Nat.
Pension Fund, 493 U.S. 365 (1990) (labor union may
not impose constructive trust on pension benefits of
union official who breached fiduciary duties and
embezzled funds). Declining to recognize any
exceptions to that provision within the bankruptcy
context minimizes the possibility that creditors
will engage in strategic manipulation of the
bankruptcy laws in order to gain access to otherwise
inaccessible funds. See Seiden, Chapter 7 Cases: Do
ERISA and the Bankruptcy Code Conflict as to Whether
a Debtor's Interest in or Rights Under a Qualified
Plan Can be Used to Pay Claims?, 61 Am. Bankr. L. J.
301, 317 (1987) (noting inconsistency if "a creditor
could not reach a debtor-participant's plan right or
interest in a garnishment or other collection action
outside of a bankruptcy case, but indirectly could
reach the plan right or interest by filing a
petition . . . to place the debtor in bankruptcy
Our holding also gives full and appropriate
effect to ERISA's goal of protecting pension
benefits. See 29 U.S.C. 1001(b) and (c). This Court
has described that goal as one
U.S. 753, 765] of ensuring that, "if a
worker has been promised a defined pension benefit
upon retirement - and if he has fulfilled whatever
conditions are required to obtain a vested benefit -
he actually will receive it." Nachman Corp. v.
Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, 446 U.S. 359,
375 (1980). In furtherance of these principles, we
recently declined in Guidry, notwithstanding strong
equitable considerations to the contrary, to
recognize an implied exception to ERISA's
antialienation provision that would have allowed a
labor union to impose a constructive trust on the
pension benefits of a corrupt union official. We
"Section 206(d) reflects a considered congressional
policy choice, a decision to safeguard a stream of
income for pensioners (and their dependents, who may
be, and perhaps usually are, blameless), even if
that decision prevents others from securing relief
for the wrongs done them. If exceptions to this
policy are to be made, it is for Congress to
undertake that task." 493 U.S., at 376 .
These considerations apply with
equal, if not greater, force in the present context.
Finally, our holding furthers another important
policy underlying ERISA: uniform national treatment
of pension benefits. See Fort Halifax Packing Co. v.
Coyne, 482 U.S. 1, 9 (1987). Construing "applicable
nonbankruptcy law" to include federal law ensures
that the security of a debtor's pension benefits
will be governed by ERISA, not left to the vagaries
of state spendthrift trust law.
In light of our conclusion that a debtor's
interest in an ERISA-qualified pension plan may be
excluded from the property of the bankruptcy estate
pursuant to 541(c)(2), we need not reach
respondent's alternative argument that
U.S. 753, 766] his interest in the Plan
qualifies for exemption under 522(b)(2)(A).
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.
It is so ordered.
Compare In re Harline, 950 F.2d
669 (CA10 1991) (ERISA anti-alienation provision
constitutes "applicable nonbankruptcy law"), cert.
pending, No. 91-1412; Velis v. Kardanis, 949 F.2d 78
(CA3 1991) (same); Shumate v. Patterson, 943 F.2d
362 (CA4 1991) (this case; same); Forbes v. Lucas,
In re Lucas.,924 F.2d 597 (CA6) (same), cert. denied
sub nom. Forbes v. Holiday Corp. Savings and
Retirement Plan. 500 U.S. 959 (1991); and Anderson
v. Raine In re Moore, 907 F.2d 1476 (CA4 1990)
(same), with In re Dyke, 943 F.2d 1435 (CA5 1991) (ERISA
anti-alienation provision does not constitute
"applicable nonbankruptcy law"); In re Daniel, 771
F.2d 1352 (CA9 1985) (same), cert. denied, 475 U.S.
1016 (1986); In re Lichstrahl, 750 F.2d 1488 (CA11
1985) (same); In re Graham, 726 F.2d 1268 (CA8 1984)
(same); and In re Goff, 706 F.2d 574 (CA5 1983)
The phrase "applicable nonbankruptcy law" appears
elsewhere in the Code, and courts have construed
those references to include federal law. See, e.g.,
11 U.S.C. 1125(d) (adequacy of disclosure statement
not governed by any "otherwise applicable
nonbankruptcy law"); In re Stanley Hotel, Inc., 13
B. R. 926, 931 (Bkrtcy. Ct. Colo. 1981) ( 1125(d)
includes federal securities law); 11 U.S.C. 108(a)
[504 U.S. 753, 759] to statute of limitations fixed by
"applicable nonbankruptcy law"); In re Ahead By a
Length, Inc., 100 B. R. 157, 162-163 (Bkrtcy.Ct.SDNY
1989) ( 108(a) includes Racketeer Influenced and
Corrupt Organizations Act); Motor Carrier Audit &
Collection Co. v. Lighting Products, Inc., 113 B. R.
424, 425-426 (ND Ill. 1989) ( 108(a) includes
Interstate Commerce Act); 11 U.S.C. 108(b)
(referring to time for filing pleadings, notices,
etc., fixed by "applicable nonbankruptcy law");
Eagle-Picher Industries, Inc. v. United States, 290
U.S. App. D.C. 307, 321-322, 937 F.2d 625, 639-640
(1991) ( 108(b) includes Federal Tort Claims Act).
Although we express no view on the correctness of
these decisions, we note that our construction of
541(c)(2)'s reference to "applicable nonbankruptcy
law" as including federal law accords with
prevailing interpretations of that phrase as it
appears elsewhere in the Code. See Morrison-Knudsen
Constr. Co. v. Director, Office of Workers'
Compensation Programs, 461 U.S. 624, 633 (1983)
(recognizing principle "that a word is presumed to
have the same meaning in all subsections of the same
The Internal Revenue Service, at least on
occasion, has espoused the view that the transfer of
a beneficiary's interest in a pension plan to a
bankruptcy trustee would disqualify the plan from
taking advantage of the preferential tax treatment
available under ERISA. See McLean v. Central States,
Southeast & Southwest Areas Pension Fund, 762 F.2d
1204, 1206 (CA4 1985); see also Anderson v. Raine
(In re Moore,) 907 F.2d, at 1481.
Those Courts of Appeals that have limited
"applicable nonbankruptcy law" to state spendthrift
trust law by ignoring the plain language of
541(c)(2) and relying ng on isolated excerpts from
the legislative history thus have misconceived the
appropriate analytical task. See, e.g., Daniel v.
Security Pacific Nat. Bank (In re Daniel), 771 F.2d,
at 1359-1360; Lichstrahl v. Bankers Trust (In re
Lichstrahl), 750 F.2d, at 1490; Samore v. Graham (In
re Graham), 726 F.2d at 1271-1272; Goff v. Taylor
(In re Goff), 706 F.2d, at 581-582.
We express no opinion on the separate question
whether 522(d)(10)(E) applies only to distributions
from a pension plan that a debtor has an immediate
and present right to receive, or to the entire
undistributed corpus of a pension trust. See, e.g.,
In re Harline, 950 F.2d, at 675; Velis v. Kardanis,
949 F.2d, at 81-82. See also Arnopol, Including
Retirement Benefits in a Debtor's Bankruptcy Estate:
A Proposal for Harmonizing ERISA and the Bankruptcy
Code, 56 Mo.L.Rev. 491, 535-536 (1991).
Even those courts that would have limited
541(c)(2) to state law acknowledge the breadth of
the 522(d)(10)(E) exemption. See In re Goff, 706
F.2d, at 587 (noting that 522(d)(10)(E) "reaches a
broad array of employment benefits, and exempts both
qualified and unqualified pension plans") (footnote
omitted); In re Graham, 726 F.2d, at 1272 (observing
that "the 522(d)(10)(E) exemption would apply to
non-ERISA plans as well as to qualified ERISA
plans"). See also Arnopol, 56 Mo.L.Rev., at 525-526,
552-553; Seiden, Chapter 7 Cases. Do ERISA and the
Bankruptcy Code Conflict as to Whether a Debtor's
Interest in or Rights Under a Qualified Plan Can be
Used to Pay Claims?, 61 Am. Bankr. L. J. 301, 318
JUSTICE SCALIA, concurring.
The Court's opinion today, which I join, prompts
When the phrase "applicable nonbankruptcy law" is
considered in isolation, the phenomenon that three
Courts of Appeals could have thought it a synonym
for "state law" is mystifying. When the phrase is
considered together with the rest of the Bankruptcy
Code (in which Congress chose to refer to state law
as, logically enough, "state law"), the phenomenon
calls into question whether our legal culture has so
far departed from attention to text, or is so
lacking in agreed-upon methodology for creating and
interpreting text, that it any longer makes sense to
talk of "a government of laws, not of men."
Speaking of agreed-upon methodology: it is good
that the Court's analysis today proceeds on the
assumption that use of the phrases "state law" and
"applicable nonbankruptcy law" in other provisions
of the Bankruptcy Code is highly relevant to whether
"applicable nonbankruptcy law" means "state law" in
541(c)(2), since consistency of usage within the
same statute is to be presumed. Ante, at 4-5, and n.
2. This application of a normal and obvious
principle of statutory construction would not merit
comment, except that we explicitly rejected it, in
favor of a one-subsection-at-a-time approach, when
interpreting another provision of this very statute
earlier this Term. See Dewsnup v. Timm, 502 U.S.
410, 416 -417 (1992); id., at 420-423 (SCALIA, J.
dissenting). "[W]e express no opinion," our decision
said, "as to whether the words [at issue] have
different meaning in other provisions of the
Bankruptcy Code." Id., at 417, n. 3. I trust
U.S. 753, 767] that, in our search for a
neutral and rational interpretive methodology, we
have now come to rest, so that the symbol of our
profession may remain the scales, not the seesaw.
U.S. 753, 768]