3 things to know about retirement accounts in divorce

Divorce can be a complex and emotionally challenging process. Among the myriad concerns are the financial implications, particularly when it comes to retirement accounts. 

These accounts often represent a significant portion of a couple’s assets, and how they are divided during a divorce can have long-term financial impacts. It’s essential for anyone going through a divorce to understand their options regarding retirement accounts

Qualified domestic relations order 

A qualified domestic relations order is a legal order used in a divorce to divide specific types of retirement plans, including 401(k)s and pension plans. The QDRO allows a portion of the retirement plan to be assigned to the non-employee spouse, often called the alternate payee without the penalties and taxes that typically accompany early withdrawals.

Transfer incident to divorce

For IRAs, the division process uses a transfer incident to divorce. This allows for directly transferring IRA funds from one spouse’s account to the other’s IRA. If done correctly as part of the divorce settlement, it’s not taxable or subject to early withdrawal penalties. 

Liquidating or offsetting the assets

Sometimes, couples may either liquidate or offset their retirement assets against other assets. Liquidating involves cashing out the retirement account, which can have significant tax implications and penalties, especially if the parties are under retirement age. 

Offsetting involves one spouse keeping their entire retirement account while the other receives assets of comparable value. This option might be suitable when both parties have substantial and roughly equal retirement savings, or when other assets can be easily balanced against the retirement accounts.

Retirement accounts are only one component of the property division process. Determining the best method for handling these requires taking a close look at the overall circumstances and effects.