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What are my pension rights after divorce?

Divorce is never a pleasant topic, especially when it becomes hotly contested by one or both spouses. Many worry about how the money or assets will be divided during the divorce. One thing that really worries divorcing spouses is the division of pensions. Many wonder, what are my pension rights after divorce?

For the most part, a pension that is earned during marriage is typically considered to be the property of both the husband and the wife. But, it is up to the court to determine how it will be divided, if at all. The court will also determine how survivor benefits are handled.

For someone to obtain pension assets following divorce, a court order is required, except in cases involving Social Security and Tier I Railroad Retirement benefits. If the divorce has yet to be finalized, the pension can be divided between the spouses while other marital assets are being divided.

A domestic relations order is the court-approved property settlement that outlines a pension plan that will make payments to the former spouse. If the domestic relations order meets certain requirements most pension plans will make payments directly to the former spouse.

When it comes to private retirement plans, a Domestic Relations Order that meets the requirements is called a Qualified Domestic Relations Order. In a large number of instances, payments can still be made for the life of the employee or retiree. Sometimes, payments can even be made after death, whether or not the person died before or after retirement.

There are some pension plans at the municipal, county and state levels that will not make payments directly to the former spouse.

In most situations a spouse who has been contributing to a pension prior to marriage will typically get to keep 100 percent of that money up to the marriage date. To do this, the court will look at the balance of the account on the date the couple got married. The remaining money will then be divided equally among the husband and wife.

The division of pensions following divorce varies by state, so be sure to check for the laws where you live.

Source: Pension Rights Center, "Pension Rights After Divorce," accessed Feb. 15, 2017

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