For many, a significant portion of their post-divorce assets consist of a part of their former spouse’s company-sponsored retirement account. In order to split a company retirement account, the plan administrator of the pension, 401(k), 403(b) or other company retirement account requires a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) or Domestic Relations Order (DRO).
A QDRO or DRO is typically drafted by an attorney and signed by a judge. It directs the retirement plan administrator to divide the retirement account between you and your former spouse, in the manner specified by your divorce decree. Once the QDRO has been approved by the plan administrator, they will transfer your portion of the retirement account into a new account in your name, within the same plan. You will also receive information on how to cash out the account and have a check sent to you (a taxable event) or rollover the account into an Individual Retirement Plan (IRA) or another retirement plan in your name (a non-taxable event).
A QDRO differs from a DRO in that it contains specific wording that is required under Internal Revenue Code and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to divide a retirement account such as a 401(k) and 403(b). It is advisable to contact the plan administrator to obtain their QDRO model language before your attorney drafts the QDRO. Most company retirement plans have a template containing the language required to be included in a QDRO. DROs are more generic and do not contain the specific wording of a QDRO. Certain retirement plans (referred to as non-qualified plans), that do not fall under the ERISA jurisdiction, can be divided with a DRO. Note that a non-company IRA (e.g. Traditional IRA, Roth IRA, SEP IRA) does not require a DRO or a QDRO to be divided, but will require a letter of instruction detailing how the account is to be divided, along with a certified copy of the divorce decree.
Typically, if you draw money out of a retirement account covered by ERISA early (prior to age 55 for a 401(k) or 59.5 for a 403(b)), you will be required to pay taxes AND a 10% penalty. However, in a divorce situation, if you were awarded money via a QDRO, you have the opportunity to take money out of a company retirement plan covered by ERISA, without the 10% penalty. Note that this withdrawal is considered taxable income and thus is subject to a mandatory 20% withholding for federal taxes and possibly state taxes too. It is very important to follow the process carefully when doing this; I highly suggest working closely with your financial planner or tax advisor.
Lastly, keep in mind that dividing a company retirement account takes time. The QDRO model language needs to be obtained from the retirement plan administrator, forwarded to an attorney to draft the QDRO, which is then submitted to the retirement plan administrator for approval and division.
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