Understanding How Pensions Are Distributed

Divorce is a challenging life event, and it comes with a great deal of complex financial and legal considerations. A critical aspect to address during divorce proceedings is the distribution of assets, including pensions. Pensions represent a significant portion of many couples’ financial portfolios, and understanding how they may be distributed is essential for a fair and equitable divorce settlement. In this blog, our experienced team shares the intricacies of pension distribution during divorce and sheds light on the various factors to consider.

The Importance of Pensions in Divorce

Pensions are retirement funds that individuals accumulate throughout their working years. During a marriage, these assets are considered marital property in many jurisdictions, meaning they are subject to division during divorce.

Pensions often rank among the most substantial marital assets, sometimes surpassing the value of other holdings like the family home or savings accounts. Failing to address them adequately during divorce proceedings can lead to severe financial disparities between spouses and jeopardize long-term financial stability. Therefore, recognizing the significance of pensions and making informed decisions about their distribution is not just about dividing assets; it’s about safeguarding the financial well-being of both parties in the post-divorce phase.

Consulting with legal and financial professionals becomes crucial in navigating this complex process and ensuring a fair and equitable outcome.

The Difference between a Pension and a 401k Plan

A pension is a  defined benefit that generally guarantees a specific monthly pension based on a formula payable when a person retires.  You wait for the monthly amount to be paid.  As a general rule, there is no cash that can be distributed when you get divorced.  You wait for your share until the plan rules allow for distributions. 

A pension is different from a defined contribution plan where an employee has a separate tax-deferred investment account. The account is funded by contributions from the employee and employer at a rate that is usually spelled out or defined in the employment agreement – hence the name. When employees retire, they take their account with them with whatever assets it has accrued.   In the event of divorce, these funds can be separated through an appropriate court order.

Pension Distribution

A Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO)  is a court order that allows the division of retirement accounts, including pensions, without triggering penalties or taxes.   These are highly technical Orders and not only have to be approved by the Court but also by the Plan Administrator of the pension plan to which the Order relates.  It is important that if you are entitled to pension benefits as a result of a divorce you make sure the QDRO is properly entered and approved by the court.

When the pension plan benefits you are entitled to relate to an Illinois governmental plan such as a plan covering a teacher, state employee, firefighter, police officer, and the like, a Qualified Illinois Domestic Relations Order must be entered.  Further, upon retirement, a Calculation Order must be entered with the court.  Take the time to learn these rules so that you have an understanding of your rights to receive benefits.

Factors to Consider when Dealing with a Pension in a Divorce

  • Valuation: The value is unknown unless an actuary is hired to estimate the same and even in that event, the valuation is based on certain assumptions that may not be applicable at a later point in time.
  • Tax Implications: In general, the benefits are taxable upon distribution.  Further, while Illinois does not have a state tax on pension benefits, other states do.
  • Long-Term Financial Planning: Consider how the pension distribution will impact your long-term financial security, including retirement planning.
  • Legal Documents:   You must get the legal forms entered by the court and approved.  It is your responsibility to ensure that you hire an attorney to assist you as this can be very complex.

Divorce is a difficult process, and the distribution of assets, especially pensions, can add another layer of complexity. It’s crucial to approach this aspect of divorce with care, seeking legal and financial guidance when necessary. By understanding the various methods of pension distribution and considering the unique circumstances of your marriage, you can work towards a fair and equitable divorce settlement that provides financial security for both parties. Sterk Family Law Group is here to help you navigate this challenging journey, ensuring your rights and financial interests are protected during this time of transition. 

For more information or to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation:

To schedule a free, no-obligation, contact Sterk Family Law Group at (815) 600-8950  or complete the form below.

As much as we may try to plan or navigate our paths and future lives, it is inevitable that we will encounter a twist in the road, or even face a roadblock or two. Check our “Navigating the Winding Road: Family Law and Estate Planning in Illinois” 


This is a legal advertisement from Sterk Family Law Group. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be construed as such. This article is for informational and educational purposes only.

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