We will be writing a series of blogs on specific retirement plans and their unique provisions. We are starting with the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, more commonly known as CalSTRS or STRS. For this article the terms “Stipulation and Order Regarding California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS)” and “QDRO” are used interchangeably. If you would like to request a blog on a specific plan, please email us at email@example.com.
CalSTRS provides three different retirement plans: Defined Benefit Program, Defined Benefit Supplement, and a Cash Balance plan. Members can have any one of these plans, or even all of them. For the Defined Benefit Program, upon retirement members receive a lifetime benefit based on their years of service credit, final compensation, and age. Defined Benefit Program members who have earned service credit after the year 2000 will also have a Defined Benefit Supplement account, which can provide additional funds to members upon retirement or if they leave STRS covered employment. The Cash Balance Benefit Program is designed for part-time, temporary and substitute teachers. Upon retirement, members can choose to receive the contributions and interest on the Cash Balance Benefit as a lump-sum payment of if the account balance exceeds $3,500, it can be rolled over into another qualified plan.
METHODS OF DIVISION
The methods of division available depend on the type of plan and the status of the employee spouse or “member”. For non-retired members who participate in the Defined Benefit plan and/or the Defined Benefit Supplement plan, there are two methods of division available, the “Time Rule Formula” or the “Segregation Method”. For retired members of the defined benefit type plans, the only option for division is the Time Rule Formula.
Below is a chart comparing the differences between the “Time Rule Formula” and “Segregation Method” for CalSTRS.
|SEGREGATION METHOD||TIME RULE FORMULA|
|When is it an option?||Only if the member is not retired and is not receiving disability benefits.||Can be used if member is retired or active.|
|How is the Award Calculated?||Typically, the nonmember spouse is awarded 50% of the member’s service credit, contributions and interest from the date of marriage through the date of separation.||The nonmember spouse is awarded a percentage of the member’s monthly benefit, and the percentage can be calculated by CalSTRS based upon the service credit earned during marriage.|
|Are there legal holds on the account?||After the court filed QDRO is received by the plan, holds are removed unless there is a longevity bonus or other account enhancement. Each party will have and control his/her own account with the Plan.||Holds remain on the account and the nonmember spouse can request benefit estimates at any time. The nonmember spouse can only receive benefits when the member is receiving a benefit (i.e. there is only one account in which both parties have an interest).|
|When can the nonmember spouse get benefits?||The nonmember spouse can apply to commence monthly benefits at age 55 or older. Benefits are not dependent on the member since the nonmember spouse will have his/her own account.||CalSTRS will not pay the nonmember spouse until the member retires. The nonmember spouse shares the member’s account.|
|Is there a lump-sum distribution option?||Yes, the nonmember spouse can apply for a refund of contributions & interest at any time.||No – the nonmember spouse cannot obtain a refund and does not have access to contributions or interest.|
|How does the monthly benefit work?||At age 55 or older the nonmember spouse can apply for a lifetime monthly benefit, which will be calculated using the member’s salary on the date of separation, the nonmember spouse’s age on the effective date of the benefit, and the service credit awarded to the nonmember spouse.||A proportionate share of the member’s monthly benefit is paid to the nonmember spouse by CalSTRS each month once the member applies for and begins receiving benefits. The benefit is calculated using the member’s salary at the time of retirement.|
|What happens to Defined Benefit Supplements and Cash Balance accounts?||A member’s Defined Benefit Supplement account or Cash Balance account can only be divided by a specified flat percentage. These accounts contain only contributions and interest. Service credit does not apply to these types of benefits.||Nonmember spouse receives a proportionate share of member’s account if specified in the court order. This share is usually determined by the percentage derived from the time rule formula when calculating the nonmember’s percentage of the Defined Benefit account.|
|What happens to the nonmember spouse’s award of service credit, contributions and interest?||They are removed from the member’s accounts and form a new account for the nonmember spouse.||They remain in the member’s account.|
Cash Balance plans must be divided using the Segregation Method and the QDRO must specify the percentage or flat dollar amount that will be awarded to the nonmember spouse.
DOMESTIC PARTNERSHIP & CALSTRS
CalSTRS benefits are considered community property under California law and upon termination of a registered domestic partnership, CalSTRS benefits can be divided. However, the federal government does not currently recognize domestic partners as spouses for tax purposes, so parties should consult with a tax advisor to determine how the division of these retirement benefits will affect each party.
CalSTRS must be joined to be bound by the terms of a QDRO. This means that a joinder must be filed with the divorce court which makes CalSTRS a party to the divorce action, and then CalSTRS must be served with these documents. The joinder will put a legal hold on the account and prevents a member who is not yet retired from making account changes, including changing beneficiaries. A joinder also allows the nonmember spouse to obtain specific account information without a subpoena or the member’s written permission.
WHAT HAPPENS UPON THE MEMBER’S DEATH? / OPTION ELECTION
One-Time Death Benefit
A one-time death benefit is available; the amount paid to the beneficiary(ies) depends on what coverage the member selected and whether the member’s death occurs before or after retirement. Either all or only a community property portion of the one-time death benefit can be awarded to the nonmember spouse under a QDRO. If only the community portion is awarded to the nonmember spouse, then the member can designate another beneficiary for the remainder of the one-time death benefit.
If the parties use the Time Rule Formula to divide CalSTRS benefits, the nonmember’s benefits (which are a portion of each monthly payment to the member) will also terminate. If the parties agree that the nonmember spouse is entitled to monthly benefits after the member’s death, the member must elect an “option” naming the former spouse as a beneficiary; he/she cannot choose a Member-Only Benefit. There are four options to choose from to provide benefits for a former spouse:
- 100% Beneficiary Option: This option will provide the beneficiary with 100% of the amount the member was receiving.
- 75% Beneficiary Option: This option will provide the beneficiary with 75% of the amount the member was receiving.
- 50% Beneficiary Option: This option will provide the beneficiary with 50% of the amount the member was receiving.
- Compound Option: This option allows the member to name one or more beneficiaries for specifically allocated percentages of the monthly benefit. This option allows a member to name both a former spouse and current spouse as death benefit beneficiaries.
COMMUNITY PROPERTY STATEMENT OF ACCOUNT
Before making any decisions about the division of a CalSTRS account, the parties should request a Community Property Statement of Account from CalSTRS, which can be obtained by using the request form here.
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