Retirement Benefits Raise Complex Issues in Divorce

Article excerpt

Q: My husband retired from one job, went to work for the government, and is about to retire again at 65. Now, after 43 years of marriage, he decided he does not want to live with me anymore and has moved out. We have accumulated our home (which is paid for), savings and annuities. I am 63 and have never worked outside the home. I would like to know your suggestions about the best way to deal with the retirements and our other assets.

A: Retirement benefits have replaced the marital home as the most valuable financial asset in many marriages for people older than 40.

But remember that dealing with retirement issues at divorce is very complex and requires planning with a knowledgeable lawyer, and certified public accountant or actuary.

Divorcing couples can take two basic approaches to dividing marital assets that include retirement benefits, but each approach requires that all assets be valued. You can:

-- Award the non-employed spouse a combination of marital assets equal in value to the retirement benefits and leave the employed spouse with retirement benefits; or

-- Divide the retirement accounts by assigning part of the retirement benefits to the non-earning spouse, and then split the remaining assets equitably.

The first alternative is essentially a tradeoff in which the spouse who earned the retirement benefits retains them and the other spouse receives other assets of about equal value as an offset.

The second alternative depends on the type of retirement benefits to be valued and divided. There are two basic kinds of retirement plans, defined contribution plans and defined benefit plans. …