Retirement plans are often one of the significant assets up for distribution in the course of a divorce. Careful attention should be given to the type of retirement plan at issue to avoid tax penalties and/or early withdrawal penalties to the extent possible. Additionally, the type of retirement plan will dictate what will be necessary in terms of documentation or court orders to effectuate the rollover. Non-qualified plans include individual retirement accounts or IRAs. These can usually be rolled over by completion of a form with the applicable institution. You should still do a direct rollover to a similar account to avoid taxes and/or withdrawal fees.
Qualified plans include defined contribution plans such as 401Ks as well as defined benefit plans such as pensions. A Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) will be necessary to distribute a qualified plan. A QDRO is a document that identifies the plan to be divided and gives specific details as to how that division will take place and what rights the party receiving the funds, referred to as the alternate payee, will have going forward. Rights of the alternate payee may include receiving cost of living adjustments similar to the plan participant and being able to elect their own survivor beneficiary for their interest in the plan. Both qualified and non-qualified plans will be taxable as distributed. The QDRO effectuates a tax-free rollover of funds to the spouse being awarded a share of the retirement plan in divorce but the spouse will be taxed on it when they withdraw it.