When an employer provides a retirement plan an employee receives a portion of his or her earnings as retirement funds. These benefits typically accumulate with the taxes on the earnings deferred until withdrawal. Retirement benefits are protected from creditors and are generally not available to the employee until actual retirement.

When the employee is married, half of the retirement benefits earned during the marriage belong to the employee's spouse. During a separation or divorce the spouse is entitled to segregate their portion of the benefits. QDROs are court orders that are issued to separate the spouse's shares. Although, different types of retirement plans use other titles, the term QDRO is used generically to apply to similar orders.

There is another important use for QDROs, and that is to provide child and spousal support when the employee is unable or unwilling to pay support from any other source. QDROs are available to secure current support and to collect past support that's is owed to the spouse as arrearages.