Gray Divorce – a Rising Trend

Over the last decade there has been an increase in the number of older, long-married couples seeking a divorce.  Twenty years ago about 1 in 10 couples over 50 would seek divorce.  Now that number has more than doubled; more than 1 in 4 couples over 50 are divorcing.  The New York Times has dubbed it “The 37 Year Itch” but the flippant name belies the underlying situations.

It appears the Baby Boomers are setting another trend in this regard, as overall, the divorce rates have been decreasing.  Even famous couples who have been in long term marriages, such as Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman and Al and Tipper Gore are experiencing this situation.

Why It Happens

The reasons for gray divorces are often different than those which occur at a younger age.  With our increasing life span, a healthy 65 year old likely has another 20 years to live life the way they choose, unburdened by an unhappy or unfulfilling marriage.  There might be the thought that “I’ve done my part for the family unit, now it’s my time.”  Or there might be the delayed mid-life crisis scenario, or one spouse finds someone who they prefer to be with at this point in their lives.

Some of these folks are perhaps on a second or third marriage, and are no stranger to divorce, as statistics show that those who have been through (and survived) a divorce are less fearful of going through it again.  Some people who have stayed together to focus on the children no longer have that goal in common – the children are grown with lives of their own.  Sometimes when one or both of the couple retires, they find they do not have anything in common anymore and perhaps don’t even really like each other!

What is true along all age lines is that more often than not it is the woman who seeks the divorce.   With their increased role in the workplace, women no longer feel the need to stay in an unhappy or unfulfilling relationship for financial reasons.

Impact on Adult Children

It can be a shock to adult children to learn their parents are divorcing after a long term marriage.  They can experience a grief for loss of the family unit just as much as younger children do.  Because they are adults, they may hear way more about their parents’ marriage and love life than they ever wanted to know.  They may be asked to take sides, which is a bad idea if they want to sustain both parental relationships.

Adult children whose parents divorce may take a long hard look at their own relationships and start to second guess their own choices.  They may be angry as well – angry that the parents stayed together for the sake of the children and didn’t follow their own hearts and divorce sooner.   It may make them feel their childhood was a sham.  If there was infidelity or abuse or financial mismanagement in the marriage, they may be angry at the one responsible.  While it may seem that the adult child shouldn’t really be entitled to anger, just keep in mind that everyone grieves differently, and the anger is one of those stages of grief.

What’s At Stake

When a couple has been married for a long time, there is a lot of financial untanglingto do when they divorce.  They likely own property together, bank accounts, investments, retirement accounts and entitlement to pensions.  There can be forgotten assets, like a retirement from a job long ago.  Often the dissolution agreements or judgments have language that addresses any later-discovered assets that had been omitted, but it is best to consider everything up front.

It is extremely important when divorcing after a long term marriage to have an experienced divorce attorney advocating on your behalf.  Some people hire a financial planner prior to filing to work with the attorney to make sure the marital assets are inventoried and assessed to ensure an equitable division.  Some even hire forensic accountants to investigate whether the other spouse has been hiding assets over the years – a secret bank account or a retirement account the other knew nothing about.

If you are splitting a pension or retirement account, either by agreement or by court order, there must be a Qualified Domestic Relations Order signed by the judge so that the administrator of the plan or account can legally enforce the terms of the Order.  (We’ll talk more about these in another article)  What is important to remember is that the effect of this may not be felt immediately – if you are not retired when you divorce, years down the road, when you do retire, that will be split with your former spouse.

Social Security

Another thing that needs to be considered is Social Security.  If you are 62 or older and have been married for 10 years or more, you may be entitled to up to one-half your spouse’s Social Security benefit.  This in no way affects their benefit or that of any future spouse they may marry.   If you remarry, however, you can’t collect on the former spouse’s record unless that marriage ended in death, divorce or annulment.  Some people completely forget about this benefit, leaving money on the table at a time when finances can be very important.

Tax Consequences

Keep in mind there are tax consequences for many of the actions that occur in a divorce, such as selling the home or cashing out retirements.  Alimony is taxable income, but a share of a spouse’s retirement may be tax deferred so that you may pay fewer taxes later when income may be less.

Professional Help

It is critical when going through a “gray divorce” that you have the best legal help available to ensure that the marital assets are correctly inventoried and assessed.  During such emotional times (and divorces are emotional, even if you are the one desiring the divorce) it may be difficult to think about all the assets you may own together, or how those assets should be distributed.  Sometimes people only think in the short term, and do a disservice to themselves.

An experienced, dedicated family law attorney will know how to best approach the complexities of this type of divorce.  You both have worked hard to accumulate what you have; if you are divorcing, you should get everything to which you are entitled.