In case of divorce, protect your interest in a retirement plan

Sylvia Porter

May 01, 1991|By Sylvia Porter

In a complex world, it can be the smallest of overlooked details that comes back to haunt you months, perhaps years later.

For example, it is increasingly possible that your marriage will end in divorce. The odds of it happening this year are about 1 in 20.

Some marriages take place early in life and last a short time, ultimately becoming nothing more than a dim memory. But other divorces take place after many years of marriage, when children have been raised and family assets have built up. When one partner has set aside a career in business to maintain family life, individual rights come into question.

After the divorce is final, both may discover that the retirement income they had counted on simply is no longer there. Social Security benefits, always meant to supplement other income and savings, are often insufficient to provide a comfortable living. And unless specific provision has been made for the working spouse's pension to be divided with an ex-spouse, rights to a portion ofthe pension may be lost.

Laws dealing with this situation vary from state to state. What's more, they are changing rapidly. New rights are being granted to the spouse who gave up a business career to make the marriage work.

Where can you get information? The Pension Rights Center in Washington has pulled together the facts. A new study describes the various rights and responsibilities involved in maintaining your interest in a retirement plan following a divorce. Though aimed at women who have chosen to stay home to raise families, the information is equally suitable for husbands who stay home and keep house.

The book "Your Pension Rights at Divorce: What Women Need to Know" is essential to anyone facing this unhappy state of affairs. But instead of providing specifics that are likely to change with new legislation and case law, it provides advice for finding the answers you are likely to need.

You will learn, for instance, that both the pension plan itself and the laws of your state will determine how easy or difficult it is to protect any pension you may be entitled to.

You may find the book a real eye-opener. It makes clear from the outset that your pension rights should be included in any discussionof divorce -- or negotiation of a settlement -- right from the beginning. Petitioning a court for redress later is expensive and success is anything but assured. In some cases, establishing a court's jurisdiction alone can be an enormous headache. The author, Anne E. Moss, addresses these types of questions in a simple, straightforward way.

Because this is a new and fluid area of the law, the Pension Rights Center has developed a series of technical legal citations that may be of use to your lawyer, reducing the amount of time that would have to be spent in research -- and therefore saving you money. The information packets deal with federally regulated retirement plans, including Social Security and civil service and military pensions. The Pension Rights Center also maintains a database of court cases involving pension issues. For a fee, it will do computer research to assist parties involved in cases where pensions play a part.

The organization has established a network of lawyers with special special knowledge of pension law and will in some cases assist individuals or groups in recovering pensions they have been wrongfully denied.

"Your Pension Rights at Divorce: What Women Need to Know" is available for $14.50 from Pension Publications, 918 16th St. NW, Suite 704, Washington D.C. 20006. The organization also has a number of other publications dealing with pension problems of other sorts.

Too often, people do not think of their retirement plans at all, choosing instead to simply assume that the pension will be there when it's needed. Chances are, it will be. But there have been enough unhappy surprises that it's to your benefit to double-check, especially if you contemplate divorce. The Pension Rights Center will arm you with the right questions.

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