How Do I Get My Share of Retirement Savings After Divorce?


Divorce is a challenging and emotional process that involves the division of assets, including retirement savings. Making informed decisions about your retirement funds during a divorce is crucial, as these savings can be a valuable bargaining tool and may also be used to pay spousal and child support. However, proper paperwork is essential to ensure you receive your rightful share of these funds. In this article, we will explore the two ways of dividing a retirement plan, the importance of understanding different plan types, and the steps involved in securing your retirement funds during a divorce.

Two Ways to Divide a Retirement Plan

When it comes to dividing retirement plans during a divorce, there are two essential approaches:

Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) for Private Retirement Plans

A QDRO is a court order used to divide private retirement plans, such as 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and other employer-sponsored plans. Each retirement plan requires a separate QDRO for division. For instance, if you have retirement funds in both a public plan (e.g., State retirement system) and a private plan (e.g., 401(k)), you will need both a DRO and separate QDROs.

Domestic Relations Order (DRO) for Public Retirement Plans

Public retirement plans, including those for state, federal, and military employees, are divided using a DRO. Examples of public-defined benefit plans include the Civil Service Retirement System and Federal Employees Retirement System. It is essential to file the correct paperwork based on the type of retirement plan to ensure you receive your rightful share.

Understanding Different Retirement Plan Types

Defined Benefit Plan

A defined benefit plan is either a traditional pension that provides monthly payments over time or a cash balance plan offering a lump-sum payment with the option for monthly payments. Many private companies and public sector organizations have defined benefit plans. Recognizing these plans is relatively easy, as their names often include phrases like “defined benefit plan,” “retirement plan,” or “pension plan.” Notably, 401(k)s and 403(b)s are not defined benefit plans.

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Defined Contribution Plan

Both public and private retirement plans offer defined contribution plans, which deposit pretax money directly into individual accounts. These plans, such as 401(k)s, profit-sharing plans, and employee stock ownership plans, allow contributions from employees, employers, or a combination of both. Identifying a defined contribution plan is straightforward, as the plan’s name usually references its type, like “ABC 401k Plan.”

The Significance of Properly Dividing Retirement Plans

Properly dividing retirement plans is vital for two reasons:

  1. Different Division in the QDRO: Each retirement plan requires specific documentation for division. Failing to follow the correct process can result in delays or loss of your share of the funds.
  2. Avoiding Missed Plans: Divorcing parties often unintentionally overlook one of their retirement plans, leading to significant financial losses. For example, if a spouse only divides a 401(k) and neglects a defined benefit plan, the other spouse might miss out on a substantial asset.

Common Mistakes in Dividing Retirement Plans

During a divorce, one of the most common errors is inadequately dividing retirement plans. Some key mistakes to avoid include:

  • Incomplete Information: Failing to gather comprehensive details about all retirement accounts.
  • Neglecting Plan Types: Overlooking the distinction between defined benefit and defined contribution plans.
  • Skipping Professional Assistance: Attempting to handle the QDRO process independently can lead to errors and potential financial loss.

Working with a QDRO Expert

Engaging a qualified QDRO expert is crucial to ensure that your retirement funds are correctly divided. These experts have the knowledge and experience to handle the QDRO process efficiently and accurately based on your specific circumstances and plan rules.

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Steps to File a QDRO or DRO

Gather Basic Information about Retirement Plans

Creating a list of all current retirement accounts, identifying employers during the marriage, and gathering contact information for each retirement account is the first step.

Drafting the QDRO

QDRO(s) will be drafted based on your case and specific retirement account(s). Seeking pre-approval from the retirement plan is advisable to avoid issues later.

Reviewing the QDRO

Review the QDRO thoroughly and seek explanations or clarifications from a QDRO expert if needed.

Filing the Paperwork

After completing the necessary steps, your QDRO preparer will file the paperwork with the court and send it to your retirement plan.


Dividing retirement funds during a divorce is a critical process that requires attention to detail and expert guidance. By understanding the two methods of division and the importance of recognizing different plan types, you can secure your rightful share of retirement savings. Working with a QDRO expert will help you navigate the process smoothly and avoid common pitfalls, ensuring your financial security during and after the divorce.

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FAQ 1: Can I divide retirement funds without a QDRO or DRO?

No, for proper division, a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) or Domestic Relations Order (DRO) is required, depending on the type of retirement plan.

FAQ 2: What happens if I don’t properly divide my retirement plans during the divorce?

Failing to properly divide retirement plans may result in financial losses, as you might miss out on your rightful share of the funds.

FAQ 3: Is it possible to divide retirement funds after the divorce is finalized?

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Yes, but it can be more challenging and may require additional legal steps. It is best to address retirement plan division during the divorce process.

FAQ 4: Can I handle the QDRO process without professional assistance?

While it is possible, it is not recommended. The QDRO process can be complex, and expert guidance ensures accuracy and avoids costly mistakes.

FAQ 5: How long does it take to complete the QDRO process?

The duration varies based on factors like the complexity of the case and the cooperation of involved parties. A QDRO expert can provide a more precise timeline.

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