If you're getting divorced and you have a significant pension plan, a qualified domestic relations order may be one of the most important pieces of paperwork to consider.

In essence, it just divides your pension plan between you and your spouse. Experts note that, in many cases, it's a 50-50 split, though it's important to remember that every case is different and things like the length of the marriage may factor in.

The idea behind a QDRO is simply that your pension is a serious asset, even if you are still working and so you're not even using it yet. You and your spouse were counting on that money to retire. If you didn't have it, you probably would have saved more for retirement on your own, so suddenly taking it away from one party in a divorce is a significant financial strain. Courts will therefore divide up those future payments so that a portion goes to you and a portion goes to your ex.

The biggest factor is how much of the pension you earned while you were married. For instance, if you worked for 10 years, got married, and then worked for 30 more years, you spouse likely only has a claim to three quarters of his or her 50 percent. If you got married, got a new job, and worked for 40 years, your spouse likely has a claim to all 50 percent. The portion of the pension earned before or after the marriage is generally exempt.

It's very important to know all of your legal options when dividing valuable assets. Don't forget that your pension could be one of the most substantial ones you control.

Source: Investopedia, "Qualified Domestic Relations Order - QDRO," accessed Dec. 29, 2017

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