The ESOP distribution timing rules for terminations due to Death, Disability, and Retirement and Other Separations of Service are in addition to the distribution rules that apply to all qualified plan distribution rules. Generally speaking, the Internal Revenue Code does not allow the assignment of an account balance. It does make an exception for an alternate payee under a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO):
§ 401. Qualified pension, profit-sharing, and stock bonus plans
(a) Requirements for qualification
A trust created or organized in the United States and forming part of a stock bonus, pension, or profit-sharing plan of an employer for the exclusive benefit of his employees or their beneficiaries shall constitute a qualified trust under this section—
(13) Assignment and alienation.—
(A) In general.— A trust shall not constitute a qualified trust under this section unless the plan of which such trust is a part provides that benefits provided under the plan may not be assigned or alienated. For purposes of the preceding sentence, there shall not be taken into account any voluntary and revocable assignment of not to exceed 10 percent of any benefit payment made by any participant who is receiving benefits under the plan unless the assignment or alienation is made for purposes of defraying plan administration costs. For purposes of this paragraph a loan made to a participant or beneficiary shall not be treated as an assignment or alienation if such loan is secured by the participant's accrued nonforfeitable benefit and is exempt from the tax imposed by section 4975 (relating to tax on prohibited transactions) by reason of section 4975 (d)(1). This paragraph shall take effect on January 1, 1976 and shall not apply to assignments which were irrevocable on September 2, 1974.
(B) Special rules for domestic relations orders.— Subparagraph (A) shall apply to the creation, assignment, or recognition of a right to any benefit payable with respect to a participant pursuant to a domestic relations order, except that subparagraph (A) shall not apply if the order is determined to be a qualified domestic relations order.
The Code defines a qualified domestic relations order and recognizes the rights of an alternate payee. If provided for in the plan document, the plan can permit the commencement of payments to an alternate payee before the Participant has attained earliest retirement age or is otherwise entitled to a benefit payment:
§ 414. Definitions and special rules
(p) Qualified domestic relations order defined
For purposes of this subsection and section 401 (a)(13)—
(1) In general
(A) Qualified domestic relations order
The term "qualified domestic relations order" means a domestic relations order—
(i) which creates or recognizes the existence of an alternate payee's right to, or assigns to an alternate payee the right to, receive all or a portion of the benefits payable with respect to a participant under a plan, and
(ii) with respect to which the requirements of paragraphs (2) and (3) are met.
(B) Domestic relations order
The term "domestic relations order" means any judgment, decree, or order (including approval of a property settlement agreement) which—
(i) relates to the provision of child support, alimony payments, or marital property rights to a spouse, former spouse, child, or other dependent of a participant, and
(ii) is made pursuant to a State domestic relations law (including a community property law).
(2) Order must clearly specify certain facts
A domestic relations order meets the requirements of this paragraph only if such order clearly specifies—
(A) the name and the last known mailing address (if any) of the participant and the name and mailing address of each alternate payee covered by the order,
(B) the amount or percentage of the participant's benefits to be paid by the plan to each such alternate payee, or the manner in which such amount or percentage is to be determined,
(C) the number of payments or period to which such order applies, and
(D) each plan to which such order applies.
(3) Order may not alter amount, form, etc., of benefits
A domestic relations order meets the requirements of this paragraph only if such order—
(A) does not require a plan to provide any type or form of benefit, or any option, not otherwise provided under the plan,
(B) does not require the plan to provide increased benefits (determined on the basis of actuarial value), and
(C) does not require the payment of benefits to an alternate payee which are required to be paid to another alternate payee under another order previously determined to be a qualified domestic relations order.
(4) Exception for certain payments made after earliest retirement age
(A) In general
A domestic relations order shall not be treated as failing to meet the requirements of subparagraph (A) of paragraph (3) solely because such order requires that payment of benefits be made to an alternate payee—
(i) in the case of any payment before a participant has separated from service, on or after the date on which the participant attains (or would have attained) the earliest retirement age,
(ii) as if the participant had retired on the date on which such payment is to begin under such order (but taking into account only the present value of the benefits actually accrued and not taking into account the present value of any employer subsidy for early retirement), and
(iii) in any form in which such benefits may be paid under the plan to the participant (other than in the form of a joint and survivor annuity with respect to the alternate payee and his or her subsequent spouse).
For purposes of clause (ii), the interest rate assumption used in determining the present value shall be the interest rate specified in the plan or, if no rate is specified, 5 percent.
(B) Earliest retirement age
For purposes of this paragraph, the term "earliest retirement age" means the earlier of—
(i) the date on which the participant is entitled to a distribution under the plan, or
(ii) the later of—
(I) the date the participant attains age 50, or
(II) the earliest date on which the participant could begin receiving benefits under the plan if the participant separated from service.
(5) Treatment of former spouse as surviving spouse for purposes of determining survivor benefits
To the extent provided in any qualified domestic relations order—
(A) the former spouse of a participant shall be treated as a surviving spouse of such participant for purposes of sections 401 (a)(11) and 417 (and any spouse of the participant shall not be treated as a spouse of the participant for such purposes), and
(B) if married for at least 1 year, the surviving former spouse shall be treated as meeting the requirements of section 417 (d).
(6) Plan procedures with respect to orders
(A) Notice and determination by administrator
In the case of any domestic relations order received by a plan—
(i) the plan administrator shall promptly notify the participant and each alternate payee of the receipt of such order and the plan's procedures for determining the qualified status of domestic relations orders, and
(ii) within a reasonable period after receipt of such order, the plan administrator shall determine whether such order is a qualified domestic relations order and notify the participant and each alternate payee of such determination.
(B) Plan to establish reasonable procedures
Each plan shall establish reasonable procedures to determine the qualified status of domestic relations orders and to administer distributions under such qualified orders.
(7) Procedures for period during which determination is being made
(A) In general
During any period in which the issue of whether a domestic relations order is a qualified domestic relations order is being determined (by the plan administrator, by a court of competent jurisdiction, or otherwise), the plan administrator shall separately account for the amounts (hereinafter in this paragraph referred to as the "segregated amounts") which would have been payable to the alternate payee during such period if the order had been determined to be a qualified domestic relations order.
(B) Payment to alternate payee if order determined to be qualified domestic relations order
If within the 18-month period described in subparagraph (E) the order (or modification thereof) is determined to be a qualified domestic relations order, the plan administrator shall pay the segregated amounts (including any interest thereon) to the person or persons entitled thereto.
(C) Payment to plan participant in certain cases
If within the 18-month period described in subparagraph (E)—
(i) it is determined that the order is not a qualified domestic relations order, or
(ii) the issue as to whether such order is a qualified domestic relations order is not resolved,
then the plan administrator shall pay the segregated amounts (including any interest thereon) to the person or persons who would have been entitled to such amounts if there had been no order.
(D) Subsequent determination or order to be applied prospectively only
Any determination that an order is a qualified domestic relations order which is made after the close of the 18-month period described in subparagraph (E) shall be applied prospectively only.
(E) Determination of 18-month period
For purposes of this paragraph, the 18-month period described in this subparagraph is the 18-month period beginning with the date on which the first payment would be required to be made under the domestic relations order.
(8) Alternate payee defined
The term "alternate payee" means any spouse, former spouse, child or other dependent of a participant who is recognized by a domestic relations order as having a right to receive all, or a portion of, the benefits payable under a plan with respect to such participant.
(9) Subsection not to apply to plans to which section 401 (a)(13) does not apply
This subsection shall not apply to any plan to which section 401 (a)(13) does not apply. For purposes of this title, except as provided in regulations, any distribution from an annuity contract under section 403 (b) pursuant to a qualified domestic relations order shall be treated in the same manner as a distribution from a plan to which section 401 (a)(13) applies.
(10) Waiver of certain distribution requirements
With respect to the requirements of subsections (a) and (k) of section 401, section 403 (b), section 409(d), and section 457 (d), a plan shall not be treated as failing to meet such requirements solely by reason of payments to an alternative payee pursuant to a qualified domestic relations order.
(11) Application of rules to certain other plans
For purposes of this title, a distribution or payment from a governmental plan (as defined in subsection (d)) or a church plan (as described in subsection (e)) or an eligible deferred compensation plan (within the meaning of section 457 (b)) shall be treated as made pursuant to a qualified domestic relations order if it is made pursuant to a domestic relations order which meets the requirement of clause (i) of paragraph (1)(A).
(12) Tax treatment of payments from a section 457 plan
If a distribution or payment from an eligible deferred compensation plan described in section 457 (b) is made pursuant to a qualified domestic relations order, rules similar to the rules of section 402 (e)(1)(A) shall apply to such distribution or payment.
(13) Consultation with the Secretary
In prescribing regulations under this subsection and section 401 (a)(13), the Secretary of Labor shall consult with the Secretary.