Friday, September 28, 2007

FAQ regarding Divorce # 17: How do we divide any retirement accounts?

Retirement accounts, not unlike mutual funds and some stock accounts, are assets acquired over the course of many years. In dividing these assets during a Divorce, you must first determine the character of the retirement account – in other words, whether it is Community Property or Separate Property (or, perhaps, both – as explained below).

First, purchases or contributions that occurred prior to the marriage would be Separate Property. Next, purchases or contributions that occurred after marriage would be considered Community Property. (Actually, it is a little more complicated than this, when you add in the earnings, losses, dividends and stock splits that occur in most retirement accounts, but the essential point is that such assets have a dual character.) Often, lawyers will hire financial experts to provide an opinion as to how much is owned by one spouse as separate property versus how much is jointly owned as community property, and therefore subject to division with the other spouse.

Also, retirement accounts (like 401k’s) are not usually divided under the Divorce Decree like other assets. This is true because there is often an administrator that is responsible for managing the retirement account. Under federal law, which Texas judges must follow, the Court will not be able to simply order the administrator to liquidate the account and pay it in cash to the respective spouses. Instead, federal law allows the state Court to issue a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (also simply known as a “QDRO” – pronounced for short “Quad Row”). The QDRO will set out how the account is to be divided. Ordinarily, the retirement account administrator will create another account in the amount (usually designated in either a total dollar amount or a percentage of the account as of a date certain) to be paid to the other spouse as specified in the QDRO. When the QDRO divides the account into two accounts, both spouses will be subject to the rules governing the retirement account (sometimes called the retirement “Plan”). Depending upon the Plan, disbursements for particular reasons may be allowed or loans may be allowed. You will need to check with the retirement account administrator to find out the rules relating to the Plan.