My ex was to get my pension, then she died. What happens now?


Q. My pension was split via a QDRO after my divorce. My ex-wife was the alternate payee, but she died. Shouldn’t I be able to recover that portion of my pension? The order actually said it would treat her like a surviving spouse. I never signed, though, because I retired 13 years after the divorce was final. What happens now?
— Ex-husband

A. There is no simple, immediate answer to your question.

There are many documents that could affect the ongoing payout of your pension as a result of your ex’s passing.

Within your marital settlement agreement or final judgment of divorce, there may be controlling language confirming an agreement or understanding regarding what was to happen to the pension plan benefits once in pay status in the event of either your ex’s or your death, said Kenneth White, a certified matrimonial attorney with Shane and White in Edison.

“To be clear, at the conclusion of most divorces individuals do not generally go into detail regarding what should happen to pension benefits in pay status upon the death of one of the parties,” he said. “Most divorce settlement agreements stop with language indicating what interest, if any, each spouse is to receive of the existing retirement benefits, and there may similarly be language requiring the election of survivor benefits if the same are available.”

The answer to your question is probably in the details and rules of your actual pension plan, White said.

For example, as you have indicated that the order indicates that your ex would be treated “like a surviving spouse,” it implies that your pension plan allowed for the designation of a surviving spouse — not all plans do, White said. This means that if you were to die, your ex would still receive her share of the pension benefits designated to her.

By electing the surviving spouse option, the total pension plan benefit payouts were likely lowered to pay for or otherwise offset the cost of providing surviving spouse protection, White said, noting it’s similar to life insurance protections.

Some plans will read that upon the death of the alternate payee — your ex-wife — any benefits apportioned to her would automatically revert back to you, the plan participant, White said. Other plans will read that once the benefits are apportioned between different beneficiaries, upon the death of a beneficiary, the benefits that were otherwise being paid out to that beneficiary will terminate and otherwise be forever lost, he said.

“You will need to thoroughly review the details and rules of your actual pension plan, review the same with an attorney, or seek the assistance of the plan administrators to confirm the details and rules of your specific pension plan and how your ex’s passing may impact you,” White said.

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This story was originally published on Aug. 23, 2022. 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.