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Q&A: "My Wife Recently Left Our Home and Will not File for Divorce Due to Religious Reasons...am I Obligated to Her Financially Through my 401(k)?"

Retirement Accounts

Question and background: 

My wife recently left our home and will not file for divorce due to religious reasons, but states she is done with our marriage. I have a decent 401k & she is constantly asking for large sums of money from it. Am I obligated to her financially? 

I am living on my Social Security income and not using those 401k funds. There is no legal action pending. She is still working for the school as a teacher. I live in community property state, Oregon USA.

Larry's answer: 

You mentioned that Oregon is a community property state. Actually, that's incorrect...Oregon is surrounded by community property states but is not one itself. 

Your 401(k) belongs to you so, generally speaking, your wife has no legal entitlement to it with these possible exceptions:

  • If you die and you've designated her as primary beneficiary
  • If you die and have not designated her as beneficiary but a court rules in her favor as surviving spouse
  • A split of the account due to divorce (which you indicated she won't pursue for religious reasons)

While it seems unlikely you have any worries on this, I encourage you to speak with a qualified attorney because there may be other factors that weren't included in your question. 

And legalities aside, you'll know the particulars of the situation...you may wish to go ahead and make 401(k) distributions to help your wife out of a sense of obligation even if not legally required.

Hope that helps. Best wishes as you work through this.

Originally posted on NerdWallet's Ask an Advisor on January 21, 2015.