How does Michigan law treat the division of pensions and retirement accounts in a divorce?

Understanding the Division of Pensions and Retirement Accounts in Michigan Divorces

When couples in Michigan decide to divorce, one of the most complex and potentially contentious issues is the division of assets, including pensions and retirement accounts. This financial matter is often laden with emotional undertones, as these accounts not only represent hard-earned savings but also security for the future.

In Michigan, as in many other states, the law considers marriage a partnership. Upon dissolution of this partnership, assets and liabilities acquired during the marriage are subject to division. This approach is known as 'equitable distribution,' which does not necessarily mean equal but rather what is fair given the circumstances of the marriage.

The Role of 'Coverture Fraction'

For retirement accounts and pensions, Michigan courts generally use a legal tool called the 'coverture fraction' to calculate what portion of these assets are considered marital property. The numerator of this fraction is the period during which the pension was earned while married, while the denominator is the total period over which the pension was or has been earned. The resulting fraction is then applied to the pension value to determine the marital portion subject to division.

Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO)

To divide a pension or retirement account, a Michigan court may issue a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). A QDRO is a legal order subsequent to a divorce decree that splits and changes ownership of a retirement plan to give the divorced spouse their share of the asset or pension plan. This document ensures that both parties receive their fair share without triggering tax penalties typically associated with early withdrawal.

Treatment of Defined Contribution Plans

Different rules apply depending on whether the retirement plan is a defined contribution plan (like a 401(k)) or a defined benefit plan (such as a traditional pension). For defined contribution plans, the amount subject to division is usually straightforward—the contributions made during the marriage plus any appreciation or depreciation on those contributions.

Treatment of Defined Benefit Plans

Defined benefit plans are more complex because they promise a specific monthly benefit upon retirement. The value of such pensions depends on factors like length of employment and salary history. Calculating a present value for these benefits can be challenging and may require actuarial valuations.

Factors Influencing Equitable Distribution

In determining what is equitable, Michigan courts may consider factors such as:

Notable Case Law

A landmark case in Michigan regarding pension division is Starr v. Starr, where it was decided that vested pensions are marital property if they were earned during the marriage. Unvested pensions may be distributed if there is enough evidence that they were part of the marital assets.


The division of pensions and retirement accounts in Michigan divorces can be intricate, involving specific legal principles and calculations. It's advisable for those going through a divorce to consult with an experienced family law attorney who understands how to protect their financial interests during asset division negotiations or litigation.