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If you are going through a divorce, any retirement accounts that you and your spouse own typically will be subject to division as part of the marital property.

That's where qualified domestic relations orders, or QDROs, come into play.

What exactly is a QDRO?

A QDRO is a type of court order that permits an ex-spouse or some other dependent payee to obtain money from someone's retirement account. California usually considers retirement accounts that were funded during the course of a marriage to be marital property that must be divided in a divorce. However, a QDRO is necessary to make it possible for the ex-spouse to collect funds from those account. Merely agreeing to the split in a signed decree isn't enough.

Why is a QDRO needed?

Federal laws require retirement plans to divide an account only when there is a QDRO in place. Due to that requirement, the divorce decree alone may not suffice, even if the divorce itself clearly and specifically addresses the account. To address a pension, the court usually needs to issue a separate document that discusses the pension's split.

While it's often possible to obtain a QDRO after a divorce is final (as long as the pension or retirement account issue is addressed), it's much safer to obtain one during the divorce proceeding itself. That way, the QDRO can be filed immediately, which fully protects the ex-spouse's entitlement to benefits.

What else should you know?

Some plans have a specific form that they wish you to use for a QDRO, so it's always best to find out what a plan wants. Otherwise, you may have trouble getting the QDRO implemented, and that could require a trip back into court.

If you have more questions about QDROs or the division of marital property in general, an attorney can help you and discuss the specifics of your situation.

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