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.

Basics of Distributing Retirement Assets

In 1984, the New York Court of Appeals decided Majauskas v. Majauskas, 61 N.Y.2d 481 (1984). This is the case that decided that the portion of the spouse’s pension, earned during the marriage, is marital property subject to equitable distribution. To the extent that a pension was earned during the marriage, it is, for purposes of New York law, considered marital property. The Majauskas decision sets forth the formula that normally is to be followed in dividing a pension plan. Along with pension plans, other types of retirement assets are divided in a typical divorce case. Retirement assets are usually divided by a QDRO.

A QDRO stands for a “Qualified Domestic Relations Order”. It is an order required by the 1974 federal statute known as ERISA (Employees Retirement Income Security Act), and applies to certain pension vehicles. QDRO may transfer retirement benefits from an employee-spouse to a spouse, former spouse or child of the employee. It must comply with the requirements of state law, as well as ERISA and other federal laws. The state domestic relations law aspects of a QDRO must be approved by the domestic relations judge, while the federal law aspects must be approved by the plan administrator from which the benefits are to be paid.

QDRO’s deal with participants and alternate payees. A “participant” is an employee who participates in either an employer sponsored or a union-sponsored qualified employee benefit plan. An “alternate payee” is a person to whom benefits are transferred in a QDRO and that person must be a spouse, former spouse, child or other dependent of the participant.

Qualified plans are divided under the Internal Revenue Code into two categories:

(1) Defined contribution plans;
(2) Defined benefit plans.

A defined contribution plan is a plan that requires the establishment of an individual account for each participating employee and provides benefits only from the amount contributed to the employee’s account, together with any income, expenses, gains or losses that are attributable to the account. Under a defined benefit plan the controlling factor is the benefit that will be provided to the employee upon his/her retirement and the amount contributed each year is actuarially computed to produce the desired benefit at the time of an employee’s retirement.

It is necessary to ascertain the type of plan to which the QDRO is directed and to understand the significance of a particular plan in the context of a QDRO. The most commonly used types of qualified employee benefit plans include:

(1) Traditional pension plans (defined benefit plan);
(2) Annuity plans (defined benefit plan);
(3) Profit-sharing plans (defined contribution plan);
(4) Money purchase pension plans (defined contribution plan);
(5) Target benefit plans (defined contribution plan);
(6) Employee stock ownership plans (defined contribution plan);
(7) 401(K) plans (defined contribution plans);
(8) Savings (or Thrift) plans (defined contribution plan);
(9) Simplified employee pension plans (i.e., SEP) (defined contribution plan);
(10) Cash balance pension plans (defined benefit plan);
(11) Hybrid plans (features of both defined benefit and defined contribution) – used by many public employee and teacher retirement programs.

Where both spouses have a pension, each may get a portion of each other’s pension, or create some other arrangement that benefits both parties. It is also possible to trade off pensions for other property in the marriage, or a spouse may waive his/her right to receive the pension.

Division of a pension is not automatic. The court has discretion to award the entire pension to the earner where, for example, there is a significant disparity in income.