Taking Stock In Your Divorce

In light of the changes in the tax laws and the recent roller coaster volatility in the stock market it might be prudent to talk with your financial advisor about whatever investment assets are attached to your settlement agreement. You can also get feedback and updates related to other nest eggs that are not part of any divorce settlement, which is nevera bad idea.

The division of investment assets can be gnarly and painful so people are getting creative in settling these issues through trading, and exchanging their respective interestsin a mutually agreeable fashion. So identifying and getting a valuation, along with guidance, about your asset options will only aid you in making any changes before the December 31St deadline.

I’ve included some tips from veterans in this field that echo ideas that we’ve heard in our discussions at PeaceTalks with our financial associates.

Splitting Retirement Accounts

To understand the value of a retirement account, you need to know how withdrawals will be taxed. In general, there are 2 main types of retirement accounts: traditional and Roth.

In a traditional account, contributions are made before taxes—or you get a tax deduction for the amount contributed if it has already been taxed. Contributions to a Roth account are made after taxes are paid but the benefit is that withdrawals of earnings and contributions in retirement are not taxed.1

Bottom line: $100,000 currently in a Roth is worth more than $100,000 currently in a traditional retirement account simply because of the different tax treatments in each type of account.

Taxable Investment Accounts

When it comes to taxable investments, it’s not about the value you see on your statement, but what you get to keep after taxes.

In general, when dividing investments in a divorce, couples may have options: One option would be to sell investments and divvy up the proceeds. This can have tax consequences. Alternatively, you can generally split the investment holdings. For instance, if 100 shares of stock are part of the marital property to be divided in half, one party gets 50 shares and the other party gets the remaining 50 shares. The IRS allows divorcing spouses to each keep the same cost basis and holding period for an investment they already own. Cost basis is the price at which the investment was originally purchased. Holding period is important because profits from the sale of investments owned for a year or less are taxed at your ordinary income tax rate, while investments held for more than a year are taxed at lower long-term capital gains rates.

Assuming your investment has appreciated, you will end up with less than the sale price—because you have to pay taxes on any gains over the cost basis. Exactly how much will depend on your tax rate, holding period, and cost basis, which can vary for a single investment if you bought shares over time. So, if you’re dividing investments equally, it’s important that the cost basis is divided equally as well—your financial institution or Fidelity representative should be able to help with that.

Of course, other important things to think about with regard to investments are the future prospects for growth or income, your own tolerance for investment risk, your financial needs, and your timeframe for investing.

Tax Consequences of Investment Asset Allocation

In addition, periods of market volatility stand to impact capital gains and losses generated from investment assets. The former can create a tax liability (e.g. where a holding is sold for more than its purchase price), whereas generally speaking the latter results in an asset (e.g. where a stock’s sales price is less than its purchase price, thus creating an offset against present or future capital gains).

In high net worth divorce cases often involving millions of dollars of investment assets subject to substantial market gains and losses, it is important in periods of market volatility to recognize that certain holdings may carry positive or negative tax consequences to the litigants. In these circumstances, it is good practice to consult with financial advisors and accountants at even this micro level of asset allocation to ensure that assets and liabilities are being apportioned and allocated as the litigants contemplated, and to avoid an unintended result of one spouse being allocated a vastly disproportionate share of capital gains or losses.