After a divorce, how are our retirement accounts split up?


Q. After our divorce in 2007, I do not believe a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) was completed. How does that impact the distribution of our respective 401(k) and IRA accounts? Would it even be possible to accurately complete a QDRO after 14 years?
— Divorced

A. Your divorce decree should answer the question of how retirement assets were to be divided.

It should also address what portion of these accounts are subject to equitable distribution.

Assuming that such provisions exist and further instruct you to have a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) prepared to divide the retirement assets, you would still be able to proceed with a QDRO even after 14 years since the divorce decree was entered, said Jeralyn Lawrence, a family law attorney with Lawrence Law in Watchung.

However, she said, it’s important that you do so as soon as possible and not allow additional time to lapse. That’s because the companies holding your respective 401(k)s and IRAs have no notice of the terms of your divorce decree dividing these assets, she said.

“It is important to note that plans can change their terms over time and are required to modify their terms to comport with federal law, which circumstances may have an effect on the division of retirement assets,” she said.

In addition, plans are not bound by the terms of your divorce decree to take any action without a court order to do so, or in this case, a QDRO, instructing them to divide these assets, she said.

Therefore, while the division of your retirement assets might be provided for under your divorce decree, it is incorrect to assume that such a division will occur automatically, Lawrence said. The QDRO process is a critical one to assure that you will each receive your share of retirement benefits as stipulated in your divorce decree.

If you’re not sure what the terms of your divorce decree are or if you have to do something with a QDRO, you should meet with an experienced family lawyer who can assist in taking these steps.

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This story was originally published March 10, 2021. 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.