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Pensions in a Divorce


Question: I am going through a divorce. My spouse works for a company that has a pension plan. I am working but don’t have a pension. Do I have a right to part of my spouse’s pension? 
Answer: A pension earned during marriage is considered a joint marital asset. In addition, a pension or retirement plan is often the most valuable asset in the marriage and it is very important that this asset be divided fairly. During a divorce, special steps must be taken to divide a pension. If you don’t take the proper steps, you may lose your right to share in the pension. Because dividing a pension is complicated, you should talk with an attorney.
The first step for you or your attorney is to send a written request for information to your spouse’s pension plan. Once you have information about the plan, your attorney can tell you the best way to divide the pension. If your spouse has more than one pension, the divorce settlement must refer to each one. You will also need a special court order for each plan. This order is called a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO).
Your attorney will need to get information from the pension administrator on the pension’s QDRO procedures. This is important because it is advisable to seek approval of the QDRO from the pension plan before you ask for court approval. When the settlement and QDRO terms are worked out and the court issues the divorce decree and QDRO, copies must be sent to the pension plan administrator. All pension issues and QDRO terms must be settled before the court finalizes your divorce. If the divorce decree gives you a share in your spouse’s pension, but you do not get a QDRO, you will have to go back to court. This can be expensive and may cause you to lose part or all of your share in the pension.
Receiving a share of your spouse’s pension is often a complicated process. It is important to get help from an attorney with expertise in these issues. For free help on pension issues, contact  Iowa Legal Aid’s Pension Rights Project at 800-992-8161.
Last Review and Update: Jan 13, 2021
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