Gary Shulman: From Carrying Buckets to QDRO Expert

Gary Shulman
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Gary Shulman never thought about becoming a lawyer, or even working in the field of pension benefits when he attended college. During those summers, Shulman earned his way by shoveling gravel and carrying boiling buckets of tar. His claim to fame was helping to install the roof on the Richfield Coliseum, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Shulman is the founder of QDRO Compliance Services and author of the “Qualified Domestic Relations Order Handbook” (3rd Edition), “Dividing Pensions in Divorce 3rd. Ed,” and “The Complete QDRO Training Manual for Corporations and Plan Administrators.”

“I am incredibly lucky in that I have found a calling that combines my love of mathematics with my love of the law, and my passion for helping people through the challenging process of qualified domestic relations orders (QDROs). Being able to share what I have learned and experienced with other attorneys and business leaders through my work, my books and my seminars and teaching opportunities is incredibly rewarding,” Shulman says.

THE PERFECT STORM

After earning his Bachelor of Science in mathematics, he thought, “So, I’m good at math, now what?” The answer came in the form of employment in the actuarial field with Kass, Germain & Co., an actuarial pension consulting firm in Cleveland. Working with mentors Jim Germain, Dave Kass and Mike Libman, his time with the firm was formative in developing the motivation to achieve success in his current practice area. He says, “My education really started after I graduated from college.”

Shulman recalls one of Jim’s favorite quotes: “Cleanliness is not next to Godliness, Grammar is next to Godliness.” The work ethic, attention to detail, and the drive to do a job right learned during those years helped propel him into a successful career as an attorney and noted author in the field of QDROs.

In the early eighties, he left the actuarial firm to work in the employee benefits department of Eaton Corp. He didn’t realize it then, but his tenure with Eaton proved to be the perfect storm of setting up his future as one of the leading QDRO experts in the country. While working full-time at Eaton, he decided to attend Cleveland- Marshall School of Law at night. This was also the time the Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) was created by Congress as part of the Retirement Equity Act of 1984.

The act established the rights of former spouses of pension plan participants to receive their marital share of the monthly pension directly from the plan administrator. Participants no longer had to liquidate every other asset they owned to offset the value of the pension.

“This totally and dramatically changed the game in the area of property division in divorce,” he says.

SORRY, JUDGE, TRY AGAIN

A QDRO is a court order signed by the judge for the purpose of awarding the former spouse his/her property right in the pension. Unfortunately, Shulman says, Congress gave plan administrators the right to reject the QDRO if they didn’t like it. “QDROs represent one of the few areas of the law where someone can take a court order, rip it up and say, ‘Sorry, judge, try again.’ That attitude presents a huge challenge for attorneys and the people they represent.”

One of Shulman’s responsibilities at Eaton was reviewing and interpreting QDROs – the first ever to enter the legal marketplace. The act was new and that meant the nation’s attorneys didn’t understand how to draft them and plan administrators didn’t know how to review them. This was also a time when virtually every retirement plan in the country was of the defined benefit variety, and divorce lawyers for the first time in their careers were hearing words such as early retirement subsidies, joint and survivor annuities, actuarial equivalencies, and so on.

As a result, more than 90 percent of QDROs were rejected by plan administrators nationwide. Plan Administrators were also not required to explain why they rejected the QDRO. This left divorce lawyers in the dark and it was not uncommon for a QDRO to be rejected five or six times.

THERE HAD TO BE A BETTER WAY

By the early ’90s, Shulman had reviewed countless futile QDRO attempts by attorneys. “There had to be a better way”, and that realization led him to write his first book on the subject of QDROs. “I wanted to teach divorce attorneys across the country the mechanics and intricacies of QDROs so they could best represent and expedite the process for their client,” he says. The “Qualified Domestic Relations Order Handbook” quickly became the definitive work on the topic of QDROs nationwide and was considered a must read and the essential desk reference for all divorce attorneys. The book is now in its 3rd edition with a 4th edition scheduled for late 2019.

By 1993, Shulman was receiving calls from attorneys saying they loved his book, but then asking if he could draft QDROs for them. “This sent my career plans in an entirely new and unexpected direction and I founded QDRO Consultants Co.” In fact, one of his very first corporate clients was Eaton Corporation.

In 1995, Shulman met Dave Kelley, who prepared actuarial valuations for attorneys, and they would soon become partners. Shulman said “It was like a peanut butter truck running into a chocolate truck, a perfect fit – Dave would prepare the present value reports and I would draft the QDROs.”

They grew their business together over 20 years, at which point Shulman sold his membership interest in the company to Kelley and his family.

FOUNDING QDRO COMPLIANCE SERVICES

Having already draft ed and reviewed more than 50,000 QDROs, Shulman subsequently founded QDRO Compliance Services, located in Beachwood, Ohio, where he provides QDRO draft ing and review services for attorneys and corporations.

He is also careful to note that even though QDROs have been around for more than 30 years, there still is no one-size-fits-all QDRO. Many plan administrators use law firms, or even mutual fund companies to process their company’s QDROs, and a lot of them bill by the hour, so there is no incentive to approve a QDRO on the first go-around. This leads to unnecessary time delays and added cost burdens for attorneys, their divorcing clients and the courts themselves. QDRO Compliance Services offers a number of flat-fee options.

Shulman also believes all divorcing nonparticipant spouses are entitled to a fair and equitable distribution of the pension assets, including those who can’t afford a seasoned and experienced divorce lawyer. Whether speaking in front of a large CLE gathering of attorneys or talking to a single individual going through divorce, his primary goal is to make sure they understand the critical components and potential pitfalls of the entire QDRO process.

QDROS – AN EFFECTIVE TOOL FOR COLLECTING PAST-DUE CHILD SUPPORT

Shulman emphasizes another very important use for QDROs. “They are the perfect tool for obtaining past-due child support directly from the noncustodial parent’s 401(k) plan. Few attorneys use them. A child support QDRO should be the attorney’s first weapon of choice. No individual should be building their retirement on the backs of their children,” he says.

In his personal life, Shulman enjoys family time with his wife, Christine, his children Rachel, Nicole and Eric, and grandchildren Abbey, Ethan, Maddie, Emery and Tommy.

He also has a passion for exotic sports cars and oft en finds reasons to visit his cousin who owns Marshall Goldman Motorcars. “It’s like going to visit the devil,” he says.

For 20 years Shulman and his family owned a horse farm where they bred world-class Paint and Quarter Horses.

He is an avid racquetball player getting together with his associates at least three times a week. He also enjoys movies of all genres especially science fiction.

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