If you are divorcing your spouse and plan to take your share of their retirement benefits during your years as a married couple, you should realize that your divorce judgment is insufficient to access those funds. What you will need is a Qualified Domestic Relations Order or QDRO.
Most people who have never been divorced and had to split retirement benefits have never heard of a QDRO. So, it's easy to assume that all you need to do is note in the judgment for the property settlement that you will receive a percentage of your spouse's pension or retirement benefits. But that will leave you coming up short.
Only a QDRO addresses this matter
First, you need to establish whether or not you are entitled to a share of your spouse's pension or retirement accounts. From there, you need to know the specifics about these accounts. For example, you will need a QDRO if you are trying to divide a 401(k), 403(b), or pension plan. You will also need this order for any other type of employer-sponsored retirement plan, including civil service plans or IRAs (federal and state).
Individuals with income exclusions can apply for QDROs as well. The most notable examples are government and military pensions. Most pension plans, IRAs 401(k) and 403(b) have to be specifically detailed in this order in order for you to get your share of the retirement funds.
Here's how it works
The earning spouse (or participant) will by default be entitled to all their benefits unless the non-worker spouse is designated as an alternate payee in the order. Each retirement plan is a little bit different in what they require the QDRO to state, so your attorney will communicate with the plan's administrator to determine the language and form of the order. Until that has been filed by the court, signed by a judge and received by the pension plan administrator, the funds are inaccessible to the non-worker spouse.
Other uses of a QDRO
Suppose your ex-spouse is court-ordered to pay spousal or child support but either cannot due to hardship or simply dodges paying. You can get a QDRO to divert these funds from the retirement accounts. Be aware of all tax implications from your actions, however, as if you are the recipient spouse it could markedly increase your tax burden.
Learn more about QDROs
Your Auburn family law attorney can tell you all you need to know about QDROs, including whether or not you will need one when you divorce your spouse here in Washington.