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How does my pension plan get divided in a divorce?

When a married couple divorces, they must divide the property they own together according to state law. Each state has its own laws about the best way to do this. Most states practice equitable distribution, meaning that the law provides guidelines to ensure the division is fair. By contrast, California is a community property state. To generalize, this means all the couple's joint property should be divided equally. In practice, California property division is more complicated than a 50-50 split, especially when it comes to complex assets such as retirement funds.

The division of a pension is an extremely complicated matter which is highly suggested by California courts to be handled by an experienced divorce attorney. In addition to a common divorce settlement agreement, the parties must complete a separate form to attach to a divorce judgment. From this form, a judge, in addition to a standard divorce judgment, will enter a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO.) In this order, he will detail how a pension plan is to be divided between the parties. It must be approved by both the judge and the benefits provider.

There are also special circumstances in which a pension plan must be "joined" as a separate party to your divorce case. Again, these matters are very complicated and almost always require the assistance of an attorney.

Recent federal laws have also recognized pension plans as an asset in divorces of same-sex couples, in states where same-sex marriage is legal. California is one of those states.

Protect your assets by insuring that you have completed the required forms correctly. The results of a mistake in these matters can result in harmful, or even disastrous, consequences.

Source: California Courts, "Dividing Property and Debts in a Divorce," accessed Nov. 17, 2017

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