May 6, 2015 § 4 Comments
Suzie drops by, writes you a check for your retainer and court costs, and fills you in on the terms of the parties’ agreement to get an irreconcilable differences divorce. She hands you a folded sheet of notebook paper with bullet points that read like, ” … Joe will get his truck and pay for it, and I will get my car and pay for it,” and ” … Joe will pay me $5,000 from his retirement account,” and “Suzie will get 1/2 of Joe’s retirement with Ajax Lightning Rod Corp.”
So, what do you do next?
If your answer was to hand the paper to your secretary to start working on a draft, you are wrong. As in deeply, malpracticedly wrong.
The correct answer is that you need a LOT more information before you commence that draft. Consider:
- What kind of retirement account is the $5,000 going to come from, and when it is it to be paid? If the account is a defined contribution plan, such as IRA or 401(k), a lump sum can be paid if done properly. If, on the other hand, it is a defined benefit plan, such as most pension plans, she could only get the money in the form of an income stream at the time of Joe’s eligibility for retirement.
- If that retirement plan that is going to fund the lump-sum payment is PERS or military retirement, you can’t dip into it to withdraw cash. The only way to access PERS benefits is to retire and begin drawing a monthly benefit, or to leave employment and get a cash payout.
- What are the actual names of the retirement accounts? You are asking for trouble if you don’t use the exact name of the accounts, such as “Ajax Lightning Rod Corp. Employee Benefit Program 51-014,” or “Joe Blow IRA Account no. 700-092108, Skinflint Bank & Trust, Lucedale, MS.” Why? Because people have a tendency years after the fact to lose their memory of exactly what it was they agreed to do, and that detail nails down exactly what that agreement was. Not only that, but later when you draft any necessary QDRO, you will need that exact information.
- Do not lift a finger to draft that PSA until you hold in your hand the most recent statements from all of the retirement accounts. Just because someone tells you they can do something does not mean they can. Also, those statements will have most, if not all, of the information you will need to draft the retirement provisions of the PSA.
- Make sure you specify the exact date of division. For example, “Suzie shall receive an amount equal to one-half of the account balance as of January 15, 2015 …” The date by which the division is to be accomplished is also critical.
- Spell out who has the responsibility to do what. If Joe is to accomplish all of this, make sure the agreement says that. If someone is going to hire a financial advisor or lawyer to draft a QDRO, who will pay the expense? Some plans actually charge fees — as much as several hundred dollars — to process divisions. Who will pay?
- Address who will bear the tax responsibility for his or her share of the division. Remember that IRA and 401(k) divisions are taxed as income, plus a 10% penalty. If that $5,000 payment is made, will Suzie’s share be reduced by 38%, or will Joe bear that burden? Remember that Suzie can avoid any taxes by rolling the money over into her own qualified account.
The most recent object lesson in how not to handle a retirement division is in the case of Miles v. Miles, about which I posted at the link. You don’t want that to happen to you. As I said before, you need to educate yourself about retirement accounts and put some thought into the most effective way to draft a provision that will protect your client and successfully accomplish what she wants to do.
Some of the information in this post is derived from a presentation by Michael D. James of Legacy Wealth Management Group, Hattiesburg, to the Conference of Chancery Judges in April.