Your pension when the unexpected happens

What if you get a divorce?
What if you get a divorce? © kurhan/

Every state is a little different, says Cynthia Hounsell, president of Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement, or WISER. But don't hesitate to ask for at least half of your soon-to-be former spouse's pensions -- both old-fashioned defined benefit and 401(k)s, she advises. It is usually -- but not always -- the husband's pension that has to be split, but whoever has to give up something never likes it very much, Hounsell says.

Making the divorce agreement stick can be tricky. If you find yourself trying to claim part of a pension, don't settle for a promise -- written or oral -- Hounsell advises. You have to have a qualified domestic relations order, often referred to as a QDRO. "That's the ticket. If the employer doesn't have that, it isn't going to pay the pension out," she says.

A surprising number of people whose divorce settlements call for a pension to be split don't actually walk away with a QDRO, and when the time comes, they can't claim what they were given. So make sure your attorney is on top of this. "A lot of lawyers aren't," Hounsell says. "If they are family lawyers and not pension lawyers, sometimes they just don't get it."


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