Domestic Relations Order (DRO)


When it comes to divorce or separation, the financial aspects can be complex and overwhelming. One important aspect that often arises in these situations is the division of retirement assets. This is where a Domestic Relations Order (DRO) comes into play. In this article, we will explore what a DRO is, how it works, and why it is crucial in ensuring a fair distribution of retirement benefits. We will also discuss some real-life examples and statistics to provide a comprehensive understanding of this topic.

What is a Domestic Relations Order (DRO)?

A Domestic Relations Order (DRO) is a legal document that outlines how retirement benefits will be divided between divorcing or separating spouses. It is a court order that is typically issued as part of a divorce or separation agreement. The purpose of a DRO is to ensure that both parties receive their fair share of the retirement benefits accumulated during the marriage.

Retirement benefits can include pensions, 401(k) plans, IRAs, and other similar accounts. These assets are often considered marital property and are subject to division during a divorce or separation. A DRO provides the necessary instructions to the retirement plan administrator on how to divide these assets.

How Does a DRO Work?

When a couple decides to divorce or separate, they may reach an agreement on how to divide their retirement assets. This agreement is then incorporated into a DRO, which is reviewed and approved by the court. Once the DRO is approved, it becomes a legally binding document.

The DRO will specify how the retirement benefits will be divided. It may outline a percentage or a specific dollar amount that each party is entitled to receive. The DRO will also provide instructions on when and how the benefits will be paid out.

It is important to note that a DRO only applies to retirement benefits that are subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). This includes most private employer-sponsored retirement plans. Government and military retirement plans have their own rules and regulations for dividing benefits.

Why is a DRO Important?

A DRO is important for several reasons:

  • Protects the rights of both parties: A DRO ensures that both parties receive their fair share of the retirement benefits. Without a DRO, one party may be at risk of losing out on their entitled portion.
  • Provides clarity and enforceability: By having a court-approved DRO, there is a clear and enforceable plan for dividing retirement benefits. This reduces the chances of disputes or confusion in the future.
  • Allows for tax-efficient division: A DRO can help minimize the tax implications of dividing retirement assets. It allows for a tax-free transfer of funds from one spouse's retirement account to the other's.

Real-Life Examples

Let's take a look at a couple of real-life examples to better understand how a DRO works:

Example 1:

John and Sarah are getting divorced after 20 years of marriage. During their marriage, John accumulated a significant amount in his 401(k) plan. As part of their divorce settlement, they agree that Sarah is entitled to 50% of the value of John's 401(k) plan. They incorporate this agreement into a DRO, which is approved by the court. The DRO specifies that Sarah will receive her share of the 401(k) plan as a direct rollover into her own retirement account.

Example 2:

Emily and Michael are separating after 15 years of marriage. Emily has a pension plan through her employer, while Michael has a 403(b) plan. They agree that Emily will keep her pension plan, and Michael will keep his 403(b) plan. However, Emily's pension plan will pay out a portion of the benefits to Michael as a survivor benefit. They incorporate this agreement into a DRO, which is approved by the court. The DRO specifies the exact terms of the survivor benefit and how it will be paid out.

Statistics on DROs

Here are some statistics that highlight the importance and prevalence of DROs:

  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were approximately 782,038 divorces and annulments in the United States in 2018.
  • A study conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that retirement accounts were the second most fought-over asset in divorce cases, after the family home.
  • Research by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College revealed that divorced individuals are more likely to have lower retirement savings compared to married individuals.


A Domestic Relations Order (DRO) is a crucial tool in ensuring a fair division of retirement benefits during a divorce or separation. It provides clarity, enforceability, and protection for both parties involved. By understanding what a DRO is, how it works, and why it is important, individuals can navigate the complexities of dividing retirement assets more effectively. Whether you are going through a divorce or simply want to be prepared for the future, consulting with a qualified attorney or financial advisor can help you navigate the process and ensure your financial well-being.

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