For many divorcing couples, retirement plans make up the majority of the marital estate. While some couples can agree to simply “each keep their own” in the asset division, for many other spouses a division of one of the accounts is necessary to ensure a fair distribution of marital assets.
When division of a retirement asset is required in a divorce, many people are unsure how to proceed. They may have heard the term Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO), but have no idea if or how it applies to their situation. This lack of knowledge often leads to errors that can end up costing them more money in the long run.
This is why it is important to understand early on what type of retirement accounts exist. Once you know what type of accounts are in play, you can assess whether a QDRO – or a different, similar order – is required. You will also better understand the most effective way to distribute the assets in the final property division settlement.
Individual Retirement Account (IRA) – Since IRAs are not subject to ERISA, a QDRO is not required to divide this type of account. Pursuant to 26 U.S.C.A. §408(d)(6), a transfer from an IRA can be made to a spouse or former pursuant to a decree of divorce or a written instrument incident to a divorce. This written instrument can be either a separation agreement or divorce decree. In most cases, a letter of instruction and copy of the Final Judgment/Settlement Agreement should be enough to transfer money from the IRA.
Non-Qualified Plans – There are numerous types of retirement assets that cannot be divided in a divorce. Non-qualified plans fall outside the purview of ERISA and are not subject to division via QDRO (or usually any other means). These plans usually have names that include words like Supplemental, Excess Benefit, SERP or even Non-Qualified, and are offered to key, high-ranking employees as a means of providing additional retirement benefits beyond those allowed under ERISA. The language of many of these plans specifically preclude payments to anyone other than the employee, and no court order can change this.
Non-ERISA and Government Retirement Plans – ERISA specifically excludes any federal government retirement plans. While these accounts are divisible, it is done with a document other than a true QDRO. While the name QDRO may be used generically to refer to any order related to retirement account division, government plans each have their own mechanisms for division and it is important to understand each. You can learn more about these plans at www.tsp.gov and www.opm.gov. Rules governing state and local government plans vary by state, so it is important to familiarize yourself with the rules specific to your jurisdiction.