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Can your wife take your retirement account?

Unless you just started your career, chances are that your retirement account is one of your most important assets. You are probably counting on it as part of your long-term financial plan.

Like many other assets you accumulated during your marriage, your 401(k) plan could be subject to division. Exactly how much of it you divide and in what way you do so — you could have some options in those respects.

The technical side

After you determine how much of your retirement account is a marital asset, you have a few other concerns. As explained by CNBC, you need a special type of order to divide 401(k) plans during a divorce.

If a top financial priority is protecting as much of your retirement assets as possible, then your wife’s intentions could inform your strategy. Consider that your wife could take her portion of your 401(k) in cash — divorce is one of the only times this is possible. This could open up some interesting financial opportunities.

For example, most employee retirement plans hold some amount of their value as volatile assets, such as stocks. If your spouse intends to immediately use the money in your retirement rather than keep it as a long-term investment, you might be able to offer alternatives to protect your retirement gains. Of course, this technique depends on the market’s current status and the rest of your portfolio.

The personal side

Your wife probably wants what she views as a fair share of the marital estate. Although emotions and tensions tend to run high in divorce, you do not often see people pursue retirement accounts out of spite.

Mediation, arbitration or other types of alternate dispute resolution often help people understand their goals and choose the best possible option for everyone. In the example above, you might be able to exchange cash for the portion of the retirement account subject to transfer, if you were able to show your spouse that the result would be the same from her perspective.

The law is clear that contributions to retirement accounts — those you make while married, that is — are marital property in most cases. Rather than try to fight this steadfast rule, you would probably save time and resources by attempting to understand your wife’s financial motivations and working from there.