An Introduction to Pensions, Retirement Accounts and Divorce
For many divorced women, the so-called golden years of retirement can become a long journey across the rocky terrain of financial hardship, if not poverty. A career homemaker who divorces in midlife often finds herself facing vastly reduced circumstances in the wake of a marital breakup. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that some middle-aged women fear that divorce may financially strain them for the rest of their lives.
Women of all ages often go into divorces on a less equal footing than their husbands and, therefore, must pay particular attention to the long-term consequences of the division of the marital estate. Women, for example, enter and leave the work force to the demands of child rearing, which lowers their contribution to their own pension plans (if they have them), and they may, for the same reason, juggle low-paying, part-time jobs that together yield a living wage but one without benefits and certainly no pension. Spouses, even professional couples, tend to defer to the husband's career, in part because men still earn more than women.
A woman whose contributions of the marriage have been homemaking and child rearing - the stay-at-home mother who have led "the most exemplary middle-class lives" - often faces a midlife divorce with only a sketchy understanding that her husband's pension may be their most valuable asset.
That's right. The two largest assets that a middle-class couple divides in a divorce are the marital home and the husband's pension. Many divorcing couples do not realize that the pension benefits of a couple ending a long marriage may be worth more than the house they live in. A thrifty couple that lives in one house during their long marriage may have accumulated pension benefits greater than the value of their house. Moreover, the continuing decline of the housing market makes the value of the family home more problematic than at any time in recent memory.
And while many women quickly grasp the idea of dividing the house, the importance in the division of the pension eludes many women, particularly since its distribution may be several years away. The custodial mother of teenagers may grab at the marital home as a solution to a near-term problem but forget that down the road her share of her former husband's pension will be more important than owning a house.
The division and distribution of pensions often become very complicated, and these issues probably generate more appeals and reversals on appeal than any other issue in equitable distribution. Even some general practitioner lawyers may stumble facing the subtleties of pension law.
Divorcing spouses, particularly stay-at-home wives, do not become experts in pension law during a divorce, nor can they expect to learn evaluation of them. However, women must learn how to ask the right questions when facing the distribution of them.
Pensions become problematic because, unlike cash in the bank or stocks and bonds, the rights to them involve 1) classification, 2) valuation, distribution, 3) qualified domestic relations orders (QDROs), and 5) miscellaneous areas of contention, including, for example, post-decree increases.
Resources & Tools
LARGEST ASSETS -- The two largest assets that a middle-class couple divides in a divorce are the marital home and their pensions.
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Online QDRO Preparation
QdroDeskTM. provides family law attorneys, their clients, and pro se filers an instant, easy, accurate, and affordable way to prepare Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (QDROs), the appropriate settlement agreement language, and processing instructions. And does it all online, with an easy to use, question-and-answer format that has made QdroDeskTM. an industry leader.
Online Pension Valuations
PensionAppraisalDeskTM uses a mathematical, web-based calculation software that gives family law attorneys, their clients, and pro se filers an instant, easy, accurate appraisal of the present value of pension benefits for equitable distribution upon divorce.
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