Grey Divorce (Elders Facing Divorce)

Guest post by Angie Picardo

While it is no surprise that divorce rates are up across the US, an unexpected trend has emerged in recent years. More and more baby boomers – now in their fifties and sixties – are opting out of marriage and venturing into the golden years on their own. In fact, the divorce rate for the 50+ demographic has doubled in the past decade.

Seniors who have navigated the divorce process often report liberation and excitement while embracing the control they have over shaping their lives in retirement. While many younger couples stay in unhappy marriages in order to raise children, elderly couples are able to make decisions without this added complication. They are able to place primary importance on each individual’s happiness, which sometimes means separating – even after years of living together.

Divorce is always a complicated and emotional issue, but couples divorcing in the later years of their life face unique challenges. Seniors have traditionally relied on spouses for support and care for the ailments that can accompany older age. Individuals who are newly single in their later years will likely have to seek out other means of support, from self-care to other family members to medical professionals. Creating a plan for current and future medical issues is an important part of navigating the divorce process for seniors, to ensure many happy and healthy years.

Division of assets also looks a bit different for divorcing seniors than for younger couples.For younger individuals, both have the potential to increase earnings after separating.Older individuals have fewer upcoming working years, and peak earnings are likely behind them.This means that seniors must carefully craft agreements that parse out retirement income, asset protection and division, health care, wills and trusts, and beneficiary designations. Investment assets, in particular, must be carefully divided so that each individual has a diverse portfolio.

Everyone experiences a decrease in mental faculties as they get older, which can play a role in the divorce process for seniors. Sometimes, what lawyers call “issues of competency” – an individual’s mental state and level of awareness – can affect parties’ ability to engage in the legal process.

The financial stress following divorce means that, in most cases, the two individuals may not be able to maintain the lifestyle that they are accustomed to together. Maintaining financial stability is therefore a major concern of many divorcing seniors. In situations when one spouse relies on the benefits received by the other, it is of paramount importance to negotiate a settlement that provides for the needs of each. A “Qualified Domestic Relations Order” is a mechanism used to divide retirement assets and can be used to divide these very important sources of income.

A recent book written by Deirdre Bair called Calling It Quits discusses senior divorce issues at more length. Her interviews demonstrate that individuals are less willing to stay in unhappy marriages now that life spans are longer, and they also observe that women feel more empowered to leave an unhappy marriage. Given the increased frequency of divorce for seniors, an increasing number of attorneys are specializing in “elder divorce” and the particular legal issues that accompany separating for older couples.

Angie Picardo is a writer for NerdWallet and TravelNerd, a personal finance website dedicated to helping you protect and save your money in topics as diverse as facing a divorce or finding the best options for LAX parking.