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TX divorce lawyerWhen you are planning for a high asset divorce in Austin, Texas and know that your retirement accounts will be classified as community property and subject to division under Texas law, you will need to have a plan in place to divide those retirement benefits. For wealthy couples anticipating a high asset divorce, the amount of money in retirement accounts can be substantial. Using a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) to transfer retirement benefits as part of your divorce could end up saving tens of thousands of dollars (or even more depending upon the amount of money in your retirement accounts and the amount that needs to be distributed to your spouse).

We want to tell you more about QDROs and how they work, and to provide you with examples that demonstrate the importance of having a QDRO in a high net worth divorce. An Austin high asset divorce lawyer is here to assist you.

What Is a Qualified Domestic Relations Order in a High Asset Divorce?

What is a QDRO? The Employees Retirement System of Texas (ERS) explains that a QDRO is a legal order subsequent to a divorce or legal separation that splits and changes ownership of a retirement plan to give the divorced spouse his or her share of the assets. In order to qualify for a QDRO, the ERS’ General Counsel must receive a certified copy of the divorce decree, and the ERS’ General Counsel must review and approve the QDRO.

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TX divorce lawyerHigh asset divorces in Austin, TX are complicated for numerous reasons, from matters of property division to alimony. One of the more complex and contentious issues that can arise in a high net worth divorce is the matter of hidden assets. Particularly in high asset divorces where one of the spouses was the primary earner during the marriage, the other spouse may have concerns about hidden or concealed assets. When the non-primary earner does not control the finances of the marriage and does not regularly manage business issues or jointly owned accounts, it can be difficult to know exactly what the assets from the marriage look like in sum. Yet discovering hidden assets can be extremely important given that Texas is a community property state.

Under Texas law, couples who get divorced in Texas should know that community property is owned equally by the spouses. Accordingly, courts divide the property recognizing that both spouses have an equal interest in it while also taking into account what kind of division would be fair to both parties. If there are substantial hidden assets, one of the spouses could end up losing out on property to which she or he is entitled. While assets can be hidden in any divorce—regardless of the extent of the property owned by the married couple—hidden assets in a high net worth divorce can total tens of thousands of dollars. As such, it is essential to ensure that neither spouse is hiding assets in the divorce.

Know Where to Look for Hidden Assets

Even if you do not immediately suspect your spouse of hiding assets, it is important to know where to look for “red flags.” For example, itemized deductions in Schedule A in past tax returns could reveal property that you did not know existed. Or, for instance, details about assets that have generated interest and dividends (located in Schedule B) could reveal that your spouse has more money than she or he has listed. Tax returns can also provide information about business profits and losses (Schedule C), as well as capital gains and losses (Schedule D). Information about capital gains and losses can provide information about certain securities in which your spouse has invested, as well as stocks or real estate.

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TX high asset divorceIn high asset divorce cases, the disposition of real property is often a major sticking point between the estranged spouses. When dealing with large parcels of commercial or agricultural land in particular, it may be necessary to actually subdivide the property. And even after the divorce becomes final, there may still be outstanding issues related to the property that lead to additional litigation.

Ex-Husband Held in Breach of Contract Over Post-Divorce Land Sale

The Texas Second District Court of Appeals in Fort Worth recently addressed one long-running dispute between two parties who divorced five years ago. The former husband and former wife in this case held 300 acres of land in Parker County as community property. Under the terms of their divorce decree, the former wife received 123 acres from that parcel.

Two years later, the former wife signed a contract with the former husband to sell back 32 acres. The contract included a written description of the land, together with an aerial photograph obtained via Google Earth. Under the contract, the former husband agreed to pay a $35,000 earnest-money deposit, which he would forfeit to the former wife in the event of a breach.

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TX high asset divorceIn a high asset divorce, one of the most critical issues is the division of retirement accounts. When one spouse earns a pension during the course of a marriage, it is considered community property. This means any such pension is subject to division as part of the overall divorce proceedings.

Austin Court: Divorce Invalidated Previous Designation of Ex-Spouse as TRS Pension Beneficiary

Pension plans require a covered employee to designate a “beneficiary,” who will receive any remaining pension benefits upon the employee's death. Typically when an employee gets divorced, the court will issue Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (QDROs), which instructs the pension plan administrator on how to divide any accounts or benefits. A QDRO also serves to override any prior beneficiary designation that conflicts with its terms.

Even without a QDRO, however, the divorce itself may automatically revoke a prior designation of a now-former spouse as beneficiary. A recent decision from a state appeals court in Austin, Jones v. Teacher Retirement System, provides a helpful illustration of this rule. In this case, a former employee of Texas Tech passed away in 2015. He had a pension with the Texas Retirement System (TRS).

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TX high asset divorceWhen it comes to a high asset divorce in Texas, both parties need to take care when selling or disposing of anything that might be considered marital property. In other words, do not sell all of your jewelry or expensive electronics and keep the money hidden from your estranged spouse. If you do this, a court may consider such actions “fraudulent” and penalize you when making a final division of the marital estate.

Judge Orders Ex-Wife to Repay Ex-Husband for “Constructive Fraud”

Now, selling assets that partially belong to you may not be fraudulent in the traditional sense of that word. But Texas law does consider it a “fraud on the community.” This is another way of saying one spouse breached their fiduciary duty to the other spouse.

Here is a real-world illustration of what we are talking about. In a recent Texas divorce case, a husband filed for divorce against his wife after eight years of marriage. The couple had no children. In his divorce petition, the husband alleged his wife had sold more than $50,000 worth of “household goods, furniture, and electronics” acquired during the marriage without his consent. Basically, the husband said he returned home one day to find his house “empty.” The house itself was the husband's separate property – he acquired it before the marriage – but everything else was considered community property.

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TX high asset divorce lawyerAlthough divorce can be an emotional rollercoaster for the parties involved, proceedings can become especially contentious when there are disputes about ownership of significant, unique, or valuable assets. While prenuptial agreements can help clear up these disagreements, many couples fail to enter into these types of contracts, as they deem it unlucky to contemplate the end of a marriage before it actually begins. For help protecting your property during your divorce, please contact our experienced Texas high asset divorce legal team today.

Accounting for All Assets

One of the biggest mistakes that a divorcing couple can make is to fail to account for all of their assets, including:

  • Current bank accounts
  • Non-cash assets
  • Future interests, such as pensions, start-up stock options, and business interests
  • Inherited funds or goods
  • Income earned prior to the divorce filing, but received later, including bonuses and recent paycheck retirement contributions

Identifying all of these types of assets can be difficult, especially for those who do not play an active role in managing their household finances, so it is particularly important for those who find themselves in this position, to speak with an experienced forensic accountant before proceeding with the property division process.

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TX divorce lawyerWhile investing can be an extremely profitable means of earning passive income, it can also create difficulties for couples who decide to dissolve their marriage. This is because investments entered into after a marriage takes place, whether they take the form of ownership in a business interest, or the ownership of stocks, bonds, or a retirement fund, must be accounted for and divided upon the dissolution of a marriage. This can cause a number of complications, especially for those who are not represented by an experienced high asset divorce lawyer who can take steps to ensure that the property division process goes as smoothly and quickly as possible.

Assessing Your Options

Whether a couple invests in the stock market, cryptocurrency, or real estate, they will need to address who will retain ownership of those assets before a divorce can be finalized. This can make an already difficult process much more complicated. Fortunately, there are certain options and strategies that can help couples protect themselves during the divorce process, not only emotionally, but also financially.

For instance, many couples with significant assets who decide to divorce attempt the collaborative divorce process, which can help minimize conflict through the pursuit of open and honest communication in an out-of-court setting. Collaborative divorces also help ensure that couples are able to decide the fate of their own property. Alternatively, couples could also choose to attempt mediation, or could even enter into a post-nuptial agreement regarding property division, which is a popular option for those who believe that their marriages are in trouble, but have not yet committed to divorce.

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TX high asset divorce lawyerAll divorces are complex and potentially emotional. Dissolving the marriage of a couple with unique or significant assets, however, tends to be especially difficult, as it often comes with a host of unique legal challenges, so if you are thinking about filing for divorce in Texas, it is important to speak with an experienced high asset divorce lawyer who can advise you.

What Is a High Asset Divorce?

Narrowing down what qualifies as a high asset divorce can be difficult, but the following are all good indicators that a divorce will involve considerable assets and come with unique challenges:

  • Both parties earn a significant income.
  • The parties own multiple real estate properties, which could include vacation homes, undeveloped real estate, and rental properties, in addition to the family home.
  • The parties own a number of vehicles, including motorcycles, boats, and vintage cars.
  • One or both parties own business interests.
  • The parties have a diverse investment portfolio.
  • The couple has significant savings, retirement benefits, or life insurance policies.
  • The parties own collectible items, such as jewelry, artwork, and memorabilia.

Couples who own some or all of these types of properties should have a thorough understanding of Texas’ community property laws, which require divorcing couples to divide their assets in an equitable and fair manner. While this could mean that a couple’s marital assets are divided down the middle, it could also result in one party being granted a greater portion of certain properties. Ultimately, what is considered fair and equitable will depend upon the parties’ unique circumstances.

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