Kentucky Bankruptcy Law

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Here I am dead and my ex-wife (ex-husband) got all of my retirement!?

It is common for a Separation and Property Settlement Agreement to be reached in a divorce situation where retirement benefits are divided up. When one spouse’s retirement is split up and a portion is given to the other spouse, family law practitioner’s know that a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO”) is required in addition to the agreement document. However, due to off-setting of funds, one spouse generally has a retirement account that remains unmolested and sometimes each spouse keep their retirement wholly as their own through negotiations. In this latter situation, a QDRO is not required and so they are rarely prepared and entered with the court and the plan administrator. A recent Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) decsion, KENNEDY, executrix of the ESTATE OF KENNEDY, DECEASED v. PLAN ADMINISTRATOR FOR DuPONT SAVINGS AND INVESTMENT PLAN et al., Decided January 26, 2009(available here at Findlaw) points out the danger assuming the divorce’s settlement agreement wraps up loose ends regarding retirement accounts.

In the Estate of Kennedy case, Husband and Wife entered into an agreement where Wife gave up her interest in Husband’s savings and investment plan (“SIP”) that was governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). The divorce was granted and the settlement was accepted by the courts. Husband’s attorney did not see the need for a QDRO and Husband assumed that was that and never changed his designation of beneficiary with the SIP administrator. When Husband died, the SIP administrator disbursed the remaining funds to ex-Wife. Everybody else got a bit peeved over this and sued in Federal District Court because it involved a question of federal law under ERISA.

Without getting too far into the analysis, SCOTUS decided to keep things simple and straightforward for plan administrators: either you do a QDRO or you change your beneficiary. The plan administrator is to look to the documents of the plan under ERISA to determine where the money goes avoiding complicated inquiries into a person’s intent. While a QDRO is an exception to this that could require the administrator to look outside of the plan documents, such an inquiry would be limited.

The lesson here is that if your are able to keep your retirement accounts intact through a divorce, you cannot rely on the divorce settlement agreement to direct those funds upon your death. You must either change your designated beneficiary, or have a QDRO entered – changing your beneficiary is by far the simplest and least costly of those options. Family lawyers need to provide their clients with follow-up directions at the end of a divorce to tie up loose ends such as changing beneficiaries for retirement accounts.

January 31, 2009 - Posted by | Divorce, Estate Planning, Family Law, Marital Assets, property allocation

1 Comment »

  1. Me and my wife just filed a uncontested devorce her in fairfax virginia..I have found out that I have found out that I have to give half of my retirement savings that I get from my employer to my futere ex-wife, I s this true? can I avoid that to happend? please help me ..thanks

    Comment by ronald | February 7, 2010 | Reply

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