04 Jan How can I stop my ex from getting my pension benefits?
Q. When I started taking my pension I was married and I chose a joint survivorship payout, which lowered my monthly benefit. The assumption was that my husband would have the pension in case I died first. Two years later we divorced and the pension plan said I could not change my beneficiary. This doesn’t seem fair. In our divorce, we separated all of our assets fairly, no arguments, and assumed that each of our pensions remained with each of us. Is there anything I can do?
A. You’ve got some options here.
First, a qualified joint and survivor annuity, or QJSA, provides an annuity to a participant of a pension plan with some portion being payable to a surviving spouse after the participant’s death.
Generally, once a pension plan begins paying benefits under a QJSA, the QJSA surviving spouse benefits irrevocably vest for the participant’s spouse as determined at that time, said Jeralyn Lawrence, a family law attorney with Lawrence Law in Watchung.
“It is not uncommon for the participant in a defined benefit pension to not be permitted to change the beneficiary designation on the plan once benefits have commenced,” she said. “It is also not uncommon for participants who select a QJSA form of payment at retirement and are subsequently divorced or widowed to request a change in the form of benefit payment.”
Lawrence said because the optional forms of payment under a defined benefit plan are determined based on specific actuarial factors and the ages of the participant and spouse, subsequent changes in the form of payment would change the value of the benefit.
Moreover, she said, because your ex-husband’s surviving spouse benefits vested once your pension went into pay status, the plan would consider your ex-husband’s benefits as belonging to him and will not permit a reassignment of such benefits — unless your ex-husband gets involved.
“It may be necessary for your ex-husband to consent, in writing, to waive any interest or benefit for which he may be entitled under the pension plan, in addition to that which is set forth in your divorce decree,” she said.
It may be helpful to review your summary plan description, benefit notices and/or election forms on the issue of changing beneficiaries, she said, as this may help you see the plan’s requirements to make such a change, if it’s allowed at all.
You should speak with an experienced family lawyer who can help you get a copy of the relevant plan documents on your behalf and discuss this issue directly with the plan administrator, she said.
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This story was originally published on Jan. 4, 2021.
NJMoneyHelp.com presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.