Not only can seniors lose much of their financial assets at a time in life when it may be hard to financially recover, but they can also lose shared connections and memories.
People are often shocked when they hear that a couple who has been married for 20, 30 or 40 years is getting a divorce (like Al and Tipper Gore, who split in 2010 after 40 years of marriage and four children.) The assumption is that if you’ve been together that long, you must have worked out any problems. And yet a study from Bowling Green State University in Ohio in 2014 found that the divorce rate for people 50 and over doubled from 1990 to 2010 and that one in four Americans getting divorced is over 50.
Reasons for Late Divorce
According to AARP, women initiate 60 percent of divorces after age 40. This could reflect the fact that more women are working today and thus have their own income and some independence, as well as a life outside of marriage and family. One therapist opined that women have higher expectations for their emotional life and won’t put up with less. And divorce no longer carries the social stigma it once did.
Readers commenting on an article on “gray divorce” in the Washington Post offered their own opinions:
“As women have become better educated and financially independent, they no longer have to tolerate husbands who don't appreciate them, abuse them, ignore them and try to dominate them.”
“Many men I have known, 50+, married for years, look at their wives, and decide it's time to ‘trade in for a new model.’ The old model gets left with very little.”
“But mostly, I see people who simply don't agree on how they want to live going forward into their senior years. Some want to stay put while their spouse wants to move around a bit. One partner wants to travel, the other doesn't. One partner is sick of cooking and cleaning after 40 years and frankly realizes that being single is the easiest way to get out of most of the drudgery. . . . And more importantly, some couples are simply tired of being tied financially to another person. Having to 'agree' on how and where to spend money can be very draining when there are two different viewpoints on spending it. With joint finances, you never have the freedom to just spend some money the way you would like to.”
Experts provide other reasons:
- People live longer, so couples in their 50s or 60s may decide they don’t want to spend another 20 years with their current spouse.
- Many older people are in their second (or third) marriage, and second marriages, no matter what age, have a higher rate of divorce than first marriages.
- Children are grown and have their own lives, so couples aren’t staying together “for the kids.”
- Couples who have been together since their early 20s have changed and gone in different directions. Raising children may have been the reason they stayed together, but once children are gone, the couple have nothing in common.
- After retirement, couples who spent much of their lives at work are suddenly together all day. That can strain any relationship, but especially ones that may have been unraveling before retirement.
Tips for Surviving a Divorce
Karen Covy, a divorce lawyer, mediator and coach, offers tips for surviving a divorce after age 50:
Source: “Tips for Surviving a Divorce After 50,” April 27, 2016, Karen Covy
A gray divorce brings challenges that you don’t face when younger. A big one is finances. If you’re retired, you can expect to have your nest egg cut in half once you divide property, pensions, IRAs and anything else you own together. At the same time, on less money, you’ll each be supporting your own household instead of sharing expenses. Similarly, you’ll have to split the bills on any debts you owe, such as mortgage, credit cards or car loans. Researchers report that older divorced Americans have only 20 percent as much wealth as older married couples.
For women, this is a bigger issue than for men because women traditionally have made less money than men and live longer. An older generation of women, especially, may have worked part-time or not at all in order to stay home and raise the children. That means they have a smaller pension, 401(k) or IRA, if any, and a smaller Social Security check. However, spouses who have been married for more than 10 years have access to their former spouse’s Social Security payments. In some cases, divorced spouses can get veterans’ benefits.
Other financial concerns include:
- As we get older, we have less time than a younger person to rebuild our retirement funds. If you’re retired and want to work again, jobs become scarcer as we age.
- If both spouses are covered by one spouse’s health insurance, a divorce likely means that one spouse will lose health insurance. If he or she gets insurance on their own, this adds to the expense of the divorce.
- In most marriages, one person usually handles the finances. After a divorce, the other person must quickly learn how to manage their financial accounts.
- One person will have to move, which means giving up your home, and this can be a wrenching experience if you’ve lived there long. Because your wealth has been cut in half, this likely means one spouse downsizing to a smaller residence.
- With your wealth cut in half, this means downsizing your life—putting retirement on hold, working more and traveling less.
Besides the financial issues a gray divorce engenders, there are the emotional ones, as well. If you’ve been married a long time, you and your spouse have a lot of history together. It will be difficult, to say the least, to not look back with bitterness and sadness on those once shared memories. You’ve seen yourself as part of a couple—and others have too--for so long, it will be hard to conceive of yourself as someone apart and alone. Divorce will mean starting all over. Other hardships include:
- Breaking up with your spouse, especially if you’ve been together a long time, means losing a web of connections—in-laws, your spouse’s friends and acquaintances and, if you move, long-time neighbors. You may have to build up new networks.
- Whether or not you and your spouse had an ideal relationship, you had a constant companion to do things with—whether playing pickleball, watching movies together or eating at your favorite restaurant. It will take more effort to find others who enjoy the same things and are as readily available.
- If you have no plans to remarry, you’re losing a partner who could help you through old age. Wrote one woman: “Life has been good, but as I get older and have a lot of time on my hands, I miss him. Consider a few years down the road, maybe you can put up with the old boy so you can enjoy each other when you are really old.”
- Even though you don’t need to stay together any longer because of your children, your adult children may react badly to their parents splitting up. They could take sides, and you could lose a relationship with your son or daughter, hopefully temporarily.
“After Full Lives Together, More Older Couples Are Divorcing,” Oct. 30, 2015, New York Times.
“Gray divorce can drag both parties into the red,” April 8, 2016, Washington Post.
“Grey Divorce and Conscious Aging: 7 Ideas to Consider,” Jan, 10, 2015, Huffington Post.
“50 Shades of Grey Divorce,” Aug. 23, 2016, Huffington Post.
“Till Death Do Us Part? No way. Gray Divorce on the Rise,” Oct. 8, 2014 Washington Post.
“7 Things to Know About Divorcing During Your Senior Years,” April 24, 2015, U.S. News.
Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors