What is a qualified domestic relations order?

The term "marital assets" tends to bring up thoughts of the family home, the heirloom furniture, the vehicles and the joint bank accounts.

However, some of the most significant marital assets are actually the spouses' retirement accounts. Depending on a variety of factors, including how long each spouse worked, these accounts may potentially be worth far more than the family car or other tangible valuables.

However, dividing retirement accounts during divorce is also more difficult than transferring the title to the Ferrari in the driveway. In order to transfer retirement assets from one person to another, you typically need a court order. The most common type of court order for this purpose is called a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO).

The People's Law Library of Maryland identifies several different types of retirement assets that may require a QDRO as part of the marital property division process. They include:

  • 401(k)s
  • 403(b)s
  • 457s
  • IRAs
  • TSPs
  • TIAA/CREFs
  • Military pensions
  • Government pensions
  • Other defined contribution plans and pension plans

QDROs offer quite a bit of flexibility in how retirement plan benefits are assigned. Although many people think that "dividing marital assets" means that each spouse gets exactly 50 percent, that's not always the case. You can use a QDRO to give your spouse (or your child or another dependent) one percent, 10 percent, 100 percent or any amount in between.

You can also use QDROs for different purposes. You may choose to give a portion of the retirement benefits to the lesser-earning spouse as part of the spousal support agreement. Or, you may decide to transfer some of the retirement assets to the other spouse as part of the property division process.

Because QDROs are complex, it is wise to have a competent family law attorney advise you about the details.