Divorce mediation, an alternative to traditional divorce proceedings, is a means to resolve the complex issues of a divorce. Mediation involves the services of a trained and neutral person who works with the parties to facilitate the settlement of disputed issues. Such person is known as the "mediator."
In traditional divorce proceedings, the judge ultimately determines child support, child custody, spousal support and property issues. Mediation, on the other hand, allows couples to control the outcome of their divorce. Additionally, the mediation process is non-adversarial in nature, which is especially important for couples with children, as like-minded parents can establish parenting plans with minimum disruption to the lives of their children.
Marital Settlement Agreements and Life Insurance Policies
Many marital settlement agreements require one party to maintain a life insurance policy on his or her life naming the former spouse as the primary beneficiary. While this provides some financial security for the former spouse, it may also result in an adverse unintended tax consequence for the insured spouse's estate.
For example, if the ex-husband is required to maintain a $1 million life insurance policy on his life, naming his ex-wife as beneficiary, on the ex-husband's death his ex-wife will receive the $1 million face amount of the policy directly from the life insurance company. If the ex-husband was the owner of the life insurance policy and paid the premiums on the policy, the IRS will include the $1 million face amount of the policy in the ex-husband's estate for the purposes of calculating the amount of estate tax owed by the ex-husband's estate. If the ex-husband died in 2007 with a taxable estate of $3 million plus the $1 million in life insurance, the inclusion of the life insurance proceeds would result in a $450,000 increase in the estate tax owed.
The foregoing result may be avoided through the use of a tax-sensitive marital settlement agreement and an irrevocable life insurance trust. The ex-husband may still be required to maintain a $1 million life insurance policy with his ex-wife as beneficiary, but the life insurance policy would be owned by the trustee of the irrevocable life insurance trust. The ex-husband may transfer money to the trust for the payment of the premiums. Since the payments are required pursuant to a court order, the payments are not considered taxable gifts. Since the irrevocable life insurance trust, not the ex-husband, is the owner of the policy, the $1 million life insurance policy will not be included in the ex-husband's estate for the purpose of calculating the estate tax owed.
Pension Plans and ERISA
Divorce and division of property are generally controlled by state law. However, when state law contradicts or is inconsistent with federal law, the federal law "preempts" the state law; federal law controls the outcome. In 1984, Congress passed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which governs most private pension plans (government and some other plans are not covered).
Federal law prohibits the assignment of pension benefits in ERISA plans. This appeared to include transfers to a spouse during divorce, regardless of a state court decision on division. To remedy this, the Retirement Equity Act of 1984 (REA) established an exception to the rule through use of a "QDRO."
Decisions regarding the division of marital assets upon divorce may be made either by the divorcing spouses themselves or by a judge. State law governs which spouse is entitled to receive which assets in the distribution. Typically, each spouse will receive a percentage of the total value of their joint property. Although it is illegal to do so, one spouse may try to hide their assets in an effort to protect the assets from property division. There are numerous tactics that an individual might try to use to veil their assets. However, it is possible to find hidden assets to make them available for a fair distribution in a divorce.
An increasingly large portion of the assets of married couples consist of rights to payments and stock from pension plans. In many states such assets are subject to division during a divorce. Divorce and division of property are generally controlled by state law, but pension plans are controlled by federal law in many respects.
Pension Plans and ERISA
A major advantage of saving for retirement through a pension plan is that contributions from employees and employers for plans such as a 401(k) plan are not taxed as income until distributed by the plan, usually after retirement, at lower tax rates. However, under provisions of the Federal Internal Revenue Code, the assignment of pension benefits, including transfers to a spouse during divorce, may result in the loss of such tax benefits.
In 1984, Congress passed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which governs most private pension plans (government and some other plans are not covered, nor are IRAs). To remedy the anti-assignment problem, the Retirement Equity Act of 1984 (REA) amended ERISA to establish an exception to the anti-assignment bar to division of ERISA plan benefits during divorce.
Upon divorce, all debts, property and assets must be divided between the spouses according to applicable percentages set by state law. In equitable distribution states, the court divides marital property (or property acquired during the marriage) according to what is "equitable" or "fair." In community property states, the court will divide marital property in equal shares, or fifty-fifty. In general, retirement benefits are classified as "property" and are thus subject to division in the event of a divorce.
Defined Benefit Plans
Generally, a "defined benefit plan" is a retirement plan that will provide monthly income benefits which become payable upon retirement. Defined benefit plans use a formula to calculate the retirement allowance based on certain set factors such as age, years of service and salary. As such, these plans are more restrictive. Defined benefit plans are designed to allow for a member to receive their retirement benefits for the rest of their lifetime. They can be in the form of government pensions, union pensions or company pensions