Since 1900, the divorce rate among people age 50 and older has more than doubled, accounting for more than 10% of all divorces. These so-called “gray divorces” are the result of people living longer and not wanting to spend that time with someone they no longer love; being empty nesters with no common interests or goals; children leaving the home, thus eliminating the primary reason to stay together; and more women earning their own income so they are not dependent upon their husband’s being the sole breadwinner. Second and third marriages have high failure rates and also tend to contribute to a growing divorce rate for older people. Older couples face the same emotional and financial issues as younger couples when they go through a divorce, but concerns about finances, healthcare, and new family dynamics can be accentuated because of the age of the spouses.
Finances are the #1 issue affecting older couples facing divorce, simply because these couples have less time to recover financially than their younger counterparts. Many couples acquire assets during the length of the marriage, including a house, savings account, and retirement savings (pension plans; IRAs or 401(k) Plans.) Since those assets are considered community property, they need to be divided fairly and equitably. This is especially important for non-working spouses, who may have contributed to a long marriage in many important ways, but not financially. Most retirement account divisions require a “qualified domestic relations order,” also known as a QDRO. Unlike retirement accounts, Social Security isn’t considered an asset and can’t be divided in court. Instead this is done directly through the local Social Security office. However, if the marriage lasted 10 years or more and the non-working spouse in need of retirement funds is 62 years old or older, he/she can start collecting Social Security as soon as the divorce is over and the working spouse has already begun to receive Social Security. As for debts acquired during the marriage, they also are considered community property and need to be paid off if possible, or divided equitably, including credit cards (link to blog post on “Dividing debt in divorce? Who pays what?”). Finally, spousal support, also known as alimony, can be ordered for the spouse who has been earning less during the length of the marriage. Alimony is almost always awarded for marriages that lasted 10 years or more, and will often last for several years, depending upon the unique circumstances of the individual marriage.
Healthcare is another significant issue that can be a major concern for older couples. If both spouses work, they can often get medical insurance through their respective employers. However, if one spouse hasn’t been working, or is working without benefits, he/she needs to look for coverage replacement. COBRA insurance is available for 36 months after the divorce. Once that expires, the uninsured spouse need to obtain health care coverage through the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, a job that offers health insurance, or Medicare if eligible. Caregiving also needs to be considered and arranged, especially as divorced spouses age. It is important for parents to plan ahead and have honest discussions with their grown children, so everybody understands the role they will have to play down the road. That’s why estate planning should be an important part of the divorce settlement discussions.
Finally living arrangements and new family dynamics can affect older couples the same way they affect younger couples. Some parents may decide to move in with their children, for financial reasons or for emotional support. Or some grown children (and their own children) may decide to move in with one of the parents. These multi-generational living arrangements can be extremely beneficial to the whole family dynamics, but may also require some adjustment time and flexibility from all those involved. Additionally, even if the children are grown, older divorced spouses will often need to decide how to share the children and grandchildren’s time between each other, especially at holiday time. Divorcing spouses who want a firm holiday schedule can request to add one to their marital settlement agreement (MSA).
It’s important to understand that a financial recovery may be hard to achieve and will take some time for most older couples. That’s why spending a lot of money on attorney fees to litigate their case may not make a lot of financial sense. An experienced family law mediator offers a less costly and more timely alternative to a traditional divorce, while helping divorcing spouses reach a fair settlement and achieve a comfortable life down the road.