Should You Value Your Pension?
Jill came to our office for post-divorce financial planning. At 60 years young with two grown children, she wanted to know whether she would make it through retirement without running out of assets. A former stay-at-home Mom and current yoga instructor, Jill did not have a professional career. Her work-life consisted of a series of part-time jobs scheduled around her children’s.
Jill traded her interest in her ex-husband Jack’s 401(k) for half of a brokerage account, her IRA, and the marital home. Their lawyers decided that Jack’s 401(k) should be discounted by 25%. That would account for the fact that the 401(k)’s pretax assets would be taxed by Uncle Sam and her State tax authority upon distribution.
That sounds reasonable on the surface. But was a 25% discount appropriate for Jill? After making some retirement income projections, it became clear that Jill would likely always be in a lower federal tax bracket than 25%. Had Jill consulted a Divorce Financial Planner at the time of her divorce, he or she would probably have advised against agreeing to a 25% discount to the value of the 401(k).
Jill and Jack also agreed that she would keep half of her interest in Jack’s defined-benefit pension that he earned as a pediatrician with a large hospital. When they agreed to divide the pension, Jack was unclear about the value of the pension. He thought that it was probably “not worth much anyway.” Neither lawyer disagreed.
This highlights how vital it is to seek advice from the right divorce professional for the right issues: lawyers for legal matters and Divorce Financial Planners for financial questions. When mediators and divorce lawyers team up with divorce financial planners, the additional expense often pays for itself.
After some research, I found that Jill would end up receiving a little over $33,000 a year from the QDRO of Jack’s pension. This is significant for a retiree with a projected spending requirement of less than $5,000 a month!
Since Jack and Jill planned to retire in the same year, she would be able to start receiving her payments at the same time as Jack. Also, Jack had agreed to select a distribution option with a survivor’s benefit for Jill.
That would allow her to continue receiving payments when Jack passed away. Jill was aware that women tend to outlive men. So, she was relieved that the survivor benefit was there.Each defined-benefit pension has its own rules. Each pension division should be evaluated individually.
A defined-benefit pension such as Jack’s does not have an easily assessable value in the same way as an IRA or a 401(k). Pension statements don’t come with a dollar value. A pension promises to pay the employee a certain amount of money in retirement based on a specific formula. For the pension to be fairly considered in the overall asset division, a professional must value it.
In her case, Jill’s share of the pension was 50% of the marital portion. Was it the best outcome for Jill? It is hard to re-assess a case after the fact. However, had she and Jack known the value of the pension, they might have decided for a different division that may have better served their respective interests. Jill may have decided that she wanted more of the 401(k), and Jack could have decided that he wanted to keep more of the pension. Or possibly Jill may have considered taking a lump-sum buyout of her claim to Jack’s pension. Whatever the case, Jill and Jack would have had the explicit information to decide consciously rather than taking the default path.
The news that Jack’s QDRO’d defined benefit pension had value was serendipity for Jill. Increasing her projected retirement income with the pension payments meaningfully increased her chances to live through retirement without running out of assets. But it is possible that a better understanding of the pension division and other financial issues at the time of divorce could have resulted in an even more favorable outcome for Jill.