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As a family lawyer for Bucks and Montgomery County, we help clients just like you through the complicated process of divorce. When clients walk in our door, they are usually very concerned about paying and receiving alimony and child support and then working out a schedule for their children.  During the initial meetings and discussions, we remind them of the importance of looking down the road a few years to retirement.

 

Divorce is as much about your future as it is about your past and present. And retirement funds and benefits are a critical component of your financial future. Whether you are trying to protect your retirement accounts, or collect from your spouse’s retirement accounts, dealing with these funds is as important as it is complex.

 

For many people, retirement accounts and benefits are one of their most valuable assets. In a divorce, these funds are considered marital property and are subject to division. Retirement funds can include 401k money, investment funds, IRAs, and pensions.  Social Security is a benefit and not an asset that is distributed in a divorce but may be considered income for purposes of support. With short and long-term implications for both parties, it is essential to understand the laws and your rights when it comes to divorce and retirement funds. Here are a few points to keep in mind.

 

Understand how retirement funds are divided

An ex-spouse is entitled to a percentage of the amount of retirement earned during the marriage.  If a spouse has been working for 20 years, and the marriage lasted for the last 12 of those years, the ex-spouse is only entitled to retirement funds deposited and interest earned during those 12 years, not earnings or investment made prior to the marriage or after separation.  Also, since oftentimes the spouse is still working, it is unknown how many years of work they will have. A fraction, known as a coverture fraction, is a formula often used to determine what the percentage will be at retirement. The numerator is the number of years married and the denominator is the total number of years accumulated in the plan (usually TBD).  The percentage the court awards is multiplied by the fraction and the amount of the plan or the dollar benefit to determine what the spouse, called the “Alternate Payee” will receive. It is also important to determine if there are any beneficiary options and whether the spouse will be a beneficiary and whether it has marital value.

 

How are your retirement funds divided after divorce?  

If your or your spouse’s 401(k) or employer-sponsored retirement accounts will be divided, you need to let the plan administrator know as soon as possible. They will be able to tell you the value of the retirement account on the date of marriage and the value upon divorce – again, this is the part of the retirement account subject to division.  

 

If you are going to be dividing retirement assets, in many cases, you will need to obtain a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO), which is separate from your divorce decree. It will be signed by a judge and will instruct the employer to separate the retirement account into two accounts. This order will allow retirement funds to be withdrawn from the retirement account without penalty and deposited into a separate account for the non-employee. It is important to note that QDROs are not needed when the retirement plan is an IRA and in other types of plans will be a DRO similar to a QDRO.  It is best to hire an expert to draft a QDRO who is familiar with the rules and regulations and plans involved. The cost to draft it is typically around $600 per QDRO and the parties normally share that cost. You may want to check if your plan, however, imposes any of their own fees.

 

Consider Alternatives

In some situations, the parties may negotiate a settlement that avoids the splitting of retirement funds. For example, one spouse may offer the other a buy-out such as stocks, bonds, investments, or property of equitable value in exchange for keeping all of their retirement funds intact. In order to do this, however, you must know the dollar value of the marital portion of the retirement plan. In pensions, this will require an appraisal.  In 401(k) plans you will need all the statements after separation as well the statement at the time of separation in order to determine what is marital.

 

Get Professional Help

A qualified attorney will know your rights in regard to protecting or collecting retirement benefits and funds. A certified accountant can help you explore the short-term tax implications and long-term financial ramifications of dividing retirement funds.

 

Divorce presents an incredible challenge – making decisions that have far-reaching impacts at a time when you are the most emotionally and mentally stressed. Allowing a compassionate professional to provide guidance can help ensure not only a brighter future but a more financially secure one as well.

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.

Receipt of the divorce decree does not necessarily mean nothing else needs to be done. In a case with a marital residence, the parties may still need to sell the house or one party may have a certain window for refinancing the property and buying the other party out. If you are a party retaining a marital residence by agreement or court order, you can change the locks once the property is formerly awarded to you. The party vacating the residence should be sure to change their address with the post office and update other accounts accordingly. In a case where retirement benefits are being split, the parties may need a qualified domestic relations order or QDRO for short.

A QDRO is a document used to rollover a portion of one party’s retirement plan/benefit to the other party. The benefit of a QDRO is that it allows a tax-free transfer of the funds from one party to their new or soon-to-be ex-spouse. The receiving spouse would then be taxed as they withdraw the money as the tax laws provide. The QDRO ultimately needs to be signed by both parties and the court prior to being sent to the plan administrator for implementation.

You will benefit from having an attorney review the terms of the QDRO before signing off on it and submitting it to the plan. If you have been paying support to your spouse, you should notify Domestic Relations if the support is ending or if it is converting to alimony. If switching to alimony, you should confirm the amount if there is any change from an existing charging order. You should also notify Domestic Relations of the term of the alimony.

Retirement assets are often one of the substantial assets in a marital estate. It is possible to do a tax-free rollover of retirement benefits as part of a divorce. First, you will need to know what kind of benefits are involved. Qualified benefits will require a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) to achieve the tax-free rollover. Qualified plans include defined contribution plans such as 401K as well as defined benefit plans such as pensions. Federal retirement plans (e.g. CSRS, FERS, TSP) also require a court order to achieve the rollover however the appropriate order for federal plans is a Court Order Acceptable for Processing (COAP). Once the QDRO or COAP is drafted to dictate the percentage or fixed amount to be rolled over, it is signed by the parties and then the Judge prior to submission to the plan for execution.

Non-qualified plans, most notably IRAs, do not require a specific order to do a rollover. Often, just a copy of the settlement agreement or Order and copy of the Divorce Decree may be sufficient to complete a rollover. It is important to make sure the rollover is direct to ensure it is tax-free. If the funds are instead withdrawn with the intention to re-deposit into the other party’s account, there will be a 20% tax withholding on the withdrawal in addition to any early withdrawal penalties that may be applicable. It is also a good idea to make sure the rollover is done promptly after the divorce. As the party receiving funds via rollover, be careful as to how you elect to receive distributions once the funds are in your account. Similar, tax and any applicable early withdrawal penalties will apply to you once accessing the funds.

Click here to read more about dividing marital property.

A qualified domestic relations order or QDRO for short, is a document that is needed to split certain retirement benefits in the context of a divorce. Specifically, all benefits governed under ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974) require a QDRO for division. ERISA plans may include pensions, 401Ks, profit-sharing plans, and stock ownership plans. A few examples of plans not governed by ERISA are local state or municipal plans, IRAs, or military benefits. There are certain base requirements for all QDROs. One, you must identify the name and address of both the participant spouse and the alternate payee, or party now standing to receive a portion of the benefits.

Two, you must specify exactly how much the alternate payee is to receive. This can be done a few different ways including as a fixed dollar amount or a percentage of the marital portion of the plan. The marital portion will be determined by looking at the years married in comparison to the total number of years as an employee earning benefits. Third, you need to explain when or how the benefits will be distributed. For many retirement benefits, the alternate payee cannot begin to collect until the participant spouse retires. Finally, the plan must be clearly identified. Certain plans may have specific language they want used or a particular template to file. It is wise to enlist the services of a company that routinely drafts QDROs to ensure the language is correct and all requirements are met.

Click here to read more about retirement benefits in divorce.

Pensions, as well as other retirement plans, are often one of the assets up for division in a divorce. The court will equitably divide the marital portion of a pension plan after considering all the relevant factors in equitable distribution. The marital portion of a plan would be the portion that accrued from the date of marriage through the date of separation. In some cases, the entire pension will be marital depending on the timing of the marriage alongside the start date of the pension plan. The marital portion will also include investment experience on the marital portion that accrues post-separation. It will not include contributions by the employee made post-separation.

A court order is necessary to effectuate a distribution of a pension, or other qualified plan, in a divorce matter. Often called a qualified domestic relations order, or QDRO, the court order provides requisite information to the plan administrator regarding the split of the pension. Qualified plans are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the QDROs allow an exception to ERISA’s anti-alienation provisions. QDROs may also be utilized outside of pension plans to allow for a tax-free rollover of benefits. A popular example would be a 401k or other profit-sharing plan. It is important to check with the plan administrator to confirm if a special court order is necessary in the context of a non-qualified plan. In some instances, a property settlement agreement or transcript describing the transfer along with a divorce decree is enough.

Click here to read more about equitable distribution.