Tracing Method of Dividing Defined Contribution Retirement Assets

I have previously written about division of marital retirement assets which is traditionally done by computing a time based coverture fraction pursuant to the New York Court of Appeals’ decision in Majauskas v. Majauskas, 61 N.Y.2d 481 (1984). Majauskas was the seminal New York case that decided that the portion of the spouse’s pension or a retirement plan such as 401k, earned during the marriage, is marital property subject to equitable distribution. To the extent that a pension was earned or 401k contributions were made during the marriage, they are, for purposes of New York law, are considered to be marital property. The Majauskas decision sets forth the formula that normally is to be followed in dividing retirement assets and consists of a fraction computed on the basis of duration of the marriage and duration of the party’s employment.

While Majauskas has been the prevailing law for the last 30 years, a recent decision suggests that with regard to defined contribution retirement plans such as 401k or 403b plans, or their equivalents, the trial court has discretion to utilize a tracing method of equitable distribution. According to Jennings v. Brown, 43 Misc.3d 1229(A) (Sup. Ct. Seneca Co. 2014), “a small minority of cases have started to hold that use of a time-based fraction to determine the marital share of a defined contribution plan is permitted”. Tracing would allow the court to treat appreciation on any separate property portion of such retirement assets as separate property, thereby reducing the non-titled party’s interest in the asset. The court observed that utilization of time coverture fraction methodology utilized by the Court of Appeals in Majauskas may result in overvaluation of non-vested party’s interest and tracing method would remedy that problem.

In Jennings, the plaintiff argued that the tracing method should be utilized to establish defendant’s interest in plaintiff’s 401k plan. However, while accepting tracing methodology as valid, the court held that it was constrained by the terms of the parties’ judgment of divorce which referenced Majauskas method of dividing retirement assets.

While Jennings is a trial level decision, and I question at least one of the cases it relies on, it suggests that with regard to defined contribution retirement funds, tracing method could be accepted by the trial court. Under appropriate circumstances, tracing method may greatly benefit the titled spouse. It also suggests that when the case is tried, the party seeking to utilize tracing method will need to present expert testimony on this issue. In Jennings, an affidavit of a CPA was presented to the court.  Since Jennings is a trial level decision, it remains to be seen whether the appellate courts will agree with its reasoning.