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  • Writer's pictureLeeson & Leeson

Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (QDROs) - Why You May Need One

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

Divorce can be a complex and emotionally charged process, often involving the division of assets and retirement accounts. In Pennsylvania, as in many other states, the law recognizes the importance of equitable distribution of marital property, including retirement benefits. Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (QDROs) are legal instruments that play a crucial role in ensuring a fair division of retirement assets in divorce cases.


Read on as our experienced Qualified Domestic Relations Orders attorneys in Bethlehem, PA, explain more below.


What is a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO)?


A Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) is a legal order typically required under U.S. federal law to divide retirement benefits between divorcing spouses or former spouses. QDROs are essential in divorce cases when one or both parties have accrued retirement assets in a qualified retirement plan. The primary laws that require QDROs include:



Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA): ERISA is a federal law that governs many private-sector retirement plans, such as 401(k)s and pension plans. Under ERISA, the retirement benefits of an employee and their spouse are considered marital property subject to division during a divorce. A QDRO is necessary to ensure that the non-employee spouse receives their share of the benefits without incurring tax penalties.



Internal Revenue Code (IRC): The Internal Revenue Code contains provisions related to taxation and retirement plan requirements. IRC Section 414(p) defines a QDRO and establishes the tax treatment of retirement plan distributions to an alternate payee, typically the former spouse. QDROs are necessary to ensure that the distribution of retirement benefits does not incur early withdrawal penalties or income tax.



State Family Law: While QDROs are mandated by federal law, the specifics of family law, including divorce and property division, are primarily governed by state laws. Each state may have its own rules and regulations concerning divorce and the division of property, including retirement assets. State family law codes often specify the requirements and procedures for obtaining a QDRO.


Why Do You Need a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO)?


Retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s and pensions, are considered marital assets in a divorce. Without a QDRO, you may face difficulties dividing these accounts fairly. A QDRO specifies how the retirement benefits will be split between the divorcing parties, ensuring each spouse's rights and interests are protected.


Without a QDRO, transferring retirement funds between spouses may result in tax consequences and penalties. A QDRO allows for a tax-efficient transfer of retirement assets, potentially saving both parties from unexpected financial burdens.


In many cases, the court requires a QDRO as part of the divorce process when retirement assets are involved. Failing to obtain a QDRO could lead to complications, delays, or even legal consequences. A QDRO ensures that both parties' rights to retirement benefits are safeguarded. It outlines the specifics of how these benefits will be divided, providing a clear and enforceable plan.


What Does a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) Do?


A QDRO specifies the retirement plan to be divided, including its name, account number, and any other relevant information. This ensures that the court and the plan administrator can quickly identify the assets to be divided.


The QDRO designates the recipient spouse as the "Alternate Payee." It provides their contact information and relationship to the plan participant, making it clear who will receive the benefits.

The QDRO outlines how the retirement benefits will be divided, typically specifying a percentage or dollar amount that the Alternate Payee will receive. It may also detail the timing of payments, whether they are immediate or deferred until retirement.


QDROs must adhere to the specific rules and requirements of the retirement plan. A qualified attorney can ensure that the QDRO meets these criteria, preventing potential issues with plan administrators.


Once the QDRO is drafted and signed by the court, it must be submitted to the plan administrator for approval. The plan administrator will then take on the task of reviewing the QDRO to ensure it complies with the plan's rules and regulations. After approval, the plan administrator is responsible for enforcing the QDRO and distributing the benefits to the Alternate Payee as specified in the order.


Leeson & Leeson Are Here To Protect Your Access to Retirement Assets After a Divorce


In a divorce involving retirement assets, a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) serves as a vital tool to ensure the fair division of these assets. It not only protects the rights of both parties but also helps avoid tax complications and legal issues. If you are going through a divorce in Pennsylvania and have retirement accounts to divide, seeking the guidance of our experienced Pennsylvania family law attorneys at Leeson & Leeson can help you navigate the complexities of QDROs and ensure a smoother divorce process.


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