GRAY DIVORCES: When Older Parties Untie the Knot

In 1967, the Beatles asked: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m Sixty Four?” Today, Sir Paul, the answer increasingly is “No.”

Family Law - Divorce
Esther R. Donald

Esther R. Donald

November 22, 2016 12:00 AM

In 1967, the Beatles asked: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m Sixty Four?” Today, Sir Paul, the answer increasingly is “No.”

Divorce among older Americans has grown dramatically over the last decades. Trend spotters have dubbed these break-ups “Gray Divorces,” “Empty Nest Divorces,” or “Silver Separations.” According to a recent study published by the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, “the divorce rate among adults ages 50 and older doubled between 1990 and 2010.” You bet that’s true. The divorce lawyers in our Plano, Dallas and Austin offices can confirm the increase in “silver separations.”

Why are folks in this demographic divorcing in such record numbers? Many times, it’s simply because they can.

Sixty is the new fifty. People are living longer and healthier lives. If you find yourself in an unhappy marriage at age 55, it may be startling to realize that you could be living in that relationship for another 30 years or more. Divorce can be a path to positive change and increased contentment in your middle and later years. There is still life after gray divorce — and long life at that.

The Baby Boomers are in their 50s and 60s now, and many themselves are children of divorce. Divorce became socially acceptable during their lifetimes, losing the stigma it previously carried. Boomers have known divorced friends, family members and co-workers throughout their lives. They may have already divorced in their own younger years, and are now in a second or third marriage.

The changing role of women has also contributed to this trend of partners separating in midlife or beyond. More women now work in financially rewarding careers than ever before. With financial independence comes the ability to declare independence from a bad marriage, or from a partnership that has become stale and is no longer fulfilling.

Finally, the empty nest can be blamed for some percentage of gray divorces. We are living in a society where parents place children at the center of their lives and relationships. In many families with young and teenage children, evenings and weekends are solely devoted to soccer, dance, football, cheer, birthday parties, piano recitals and playoff games. After the children are grown, some couples find that they have grown apart, and have lost the one common bond that occupied much of their time and attention.

Not only are there specific patterns to explain this trend, there are also some unique factors that distinguish gray divorces. Certain issues repeatedly come up in divorces among this demographic.

• Retirement Assets: Couples divorcing later in life are often dividing sizeable retirement plans. The proper division of these valuable assets depends on careful analysis and drafting by a knowledgeable family divorce lawyer. Federal laws such as ERISA, survivor benefits, and the rights of a former spouse must all be considered. Gray divorces may also involve the sale of a marital residence, protection of separate property acquired by inheritance during the marriage, and issues of future health coverage if one spouse is not employed.

• Social Security: The state court that grants your divorce will not address social security or other federal benefits. Nonetheless, it is important to consider this topic when divorcing near retirement age. A divorced spouse may qualify to receive an amount equal to half of that earned by his/her former spouse, if the marriage exceeded 10 years, and the applicant for benefits is still unmarried and at least 62 years old. Oftentimes that figure will exceed the benefit available to the applicant based on his/her own earning history. You should review your options with the Social Security Administration if you think this rule might benefit you.

• Relationships with Children: It is hard to resist enlisting your grown children as confidantes, when dealing with the upheaval of divorce. Divorce counseling can help you avoid placing this emotional burden on your adult children, shielding them from being caught “in the middle.” It is not unusual for adult children of divorce to seek some counseling themselves when their family stability is shaken. If you are an “older parent” divorcing with teenagers still at home, counseling for those teens is also advised. Additionally, your divorce can address concerns specific to your family, such as who will pay for college, and what possession schedules work best for high school kids.

When faced with the inevitability of a later-in-life divorce, you may realize that it is too late to say, in the words of the Beatles, “We Can Work it Out.” In that event, you should consult competent counsel to protect your retirement income and assets, and your family relationships, in the most prudent and effective manner possible.

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