Are you are separated or divorced? Do you expect to be? If so, you need to know about the “Spouse Equity Act.” The same is true if your marriage was – or will be – annulled. The reason you need to know about this law is that a court order related to any of these situations can have a profound impact on your future benefits.

A court order can divide your retirement annuity, block or divide a refund of your retirement contributions, and provide for a survivor annuity if you die. In addition, it can allow a former spouse to continue coverage under the FEHB program, require you to assign your FEGLI benefits to that former spouse or your children, and even lay claim to some of the money in your Thrift Saving Plan (TSP) account.

The document that makes some or all of these things happen is called a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). However, it is only binding if it conforms to the requirements set down in laws that apply to CSRS and FERS. That’s because CSRS and FERS are exempt from the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which applies to everyone else. (As always, the federal government had to be different.)

Because of those differences, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has published a handbook for attorneys, RI 38-116, which you can download from www.opm.gov/asd/pdf/ri83-116.pdf. Regardless of whether you are on the initiating or receiving end of a separation, divorce or annulment proceeding, your attorney needs to have a copy of this essential document in order to protect your interests.

If you’d like a short course on the subject, OPM has published RI 84-1, a non-technical booklet titled Court-ordered Benefits for Former Spouses. Copies are available in many personnel offices or you can download it at www.opm.gov/retire/html/library/ri84-1/index.asp.