Pensions and Retirement Accounts Facts and Tips

No Golden Years

For many divorced women, the so-called golden years of retirement can become a hard slog across the rocky terrain of financial hardship, if not poverty. A career homemaker who divorces in midlife often finds herself facing vastly reduced circumstances after a marital breakup. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that some middle-aged women fear that divorce may become a one-way ticket to the poorhouse.

Pensions Can be Problematic

Pensions become problematic because, unlike cash in the bank or stocks and bonds, the rights to them involve 1) classification, 2) valuation and distribution, 3) qualified domestic relations orders (QDROs), and 5) miscellaneous areas of contention, including, for example, post-decree increases.

Many Models of Plans

Pension and retirement plans come in a bewildering array, with many diverse provisions; however, the two basic models are: the defined benefit or defined contribution. The defined benefit plan is generally a retirement annuity, wherein the employee contributes nothing and the employer sets aside benefits for all employees in a pool; the defined contribution plan is an individual or separate account in the employee-spouse's name, whereby he or she contributes pretax dollars to his or her account that are matched to a certain amount by the employer's contribution.

A Valuable Asset

Pensions and retirement plans often have significant value. The value of a typical pension benefit payable in the future can be deceiving. For example, a $2,000 monthly benefit payable for life beginning at age 65 can have a value of $100,000 to $200,000 for a person in his or her fifties today. Calculating the value of a pension demands an appraisal to compute its present value, which is the value of money over time.


The distribution of a pension normally requires a QDRO, which is a qualified domestic relations order that establishes the terms and conditions of payment to both the worker-spouse and his survivor or former spouse.

Wife's Disadvantage

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, may 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.

Husband's Advantage

Pensions earned during a marriage are marital property and subject to division and distribution, but spouses, even professional couples, tend to defer to the husband's career because men still earn more than women. Many a homemaking woman faces a midlife divorce with only a sketchy understanding that her husband's pension may be their most valuable asset, and that she is entitled to a share.

Largest Assets

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.

Difference in Dividing the House and Pension

Many people quickly grasp the idea of dividing the marital house, but the importance of dividing the pension may not seem present since its distribution may be several years away. The custodial mother of teenagers may grab at the marital home as a solution to a short-term problem but forget that down the road her share of her former husband's pension will be more important than owning a house.

Good Legal Advice

The division and distribution of pensions often becomes 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. One must learn how to ask the right questions when facing the distribution of pensions and retirement plans.

Suggested Reading
Pension Issues in Divorce Pension Issues in Divorce
When couples get divorced they must decide how to divide their property. Retirement benefits (pensions) often form a substantial part of the parties' total marital estate and many times are the largest single marital asset afforded the couple. Similar to other assets, pensions are typically divisible in cases of divorce to the extent that they are acquired during the period of marriage.

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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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