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Going Through Gray Divorce with Grit and Grace

 

Divorce after 50 – aka “gray divorce” – is becoming more common (for several reasons). Couples over 50 are now seeing the highest divorce rates among all age groups in the world. 

 

The United States has the highest divorce rate in the world, with nearly half of all marriages breaking up. I am twice divorced, and so is my significant other. In fact, between the two of us and our parents, there are 13 divorces between the 6 of us. So when I say I am familiar with divorce…trust me!

Research indicates that even people married 20 years or longer are getting divorced more often in recent decades. There has been a significant uptick in “gray divorce,” a term used to describe a split involving married couples at least 50 years of age or older.

According to a study from The Journal of Gerontology, persons aged 50 and older account for one-fourth of divorces, and the divorce rate for this demographic has doubled since the 1990s. It also found that “over half of those divorces happened after 20 years of marriage.” A Pew Research report shows that higher gray divorce rates are linked to Baby Boomers, who comprise the “bulk of this age group,” but what factors are spurring the increase, and why is it more prevalent now?  

Jeff Stokes, assistant professor in the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Department of Gerontology, cites three main contributing factors to the rise in gray divorce. 

The first entails “changes in gender equality among current primary cohorts of gray divorce and less defined gender roles in the labor force,” said Stokes. “There are much more equal proportions of men and women in the labor force.” 

An increase in women’s financial independence has reduced the fear of financial repercussions stemming from divorce. Women earn incomes independently, which takes away the financial barrier to divorce for many. Many women are earning more than their spouses.

Secondly, there is greater cultural acceptance of divorce now that our society has developed a more equitable division of labor. Men engage in a more evenly divided share of household work and child-rearing responsibilities than was typical in previous generations. 

A third contributing factor and something unique to gray divorce, stated Stokes, is increased life expectancy. “Decisions on relationships and planning are often based on people’s expectations for the future,” he elaborated.  50% of people in mid-life today, especially women, will live past 85. The idea of putting up with a spouse you’re not happy with seems a lot less palatable if it’s going to be for 20, 30, or even 40 more years.

Before the Baby Boomers, people in their fifties and sixties were not anticipating decades more of healthy living, which may have influenced their views on enduring a boring marriage. With longer average life expectancies, that social dynamic has changed. “Remaining in an okay marriage is different when you’re in physical decline,” mused Stokes. “A spouse can be a caregiver. In intimate relationships, decisions are often based on the alternatives.”

A spouse in a turbulent marriage might prefer being alone to staying in a toxic relationship, but most older couples seeking divorce are just in a marriage that has deteriorated over time, maintained Stokes. If you’re 65 and still expecting decades of active life ahead, the thought process becomes less about ‘Will I find someone else?’ and more ‘Why should I spend it with this person who doesn’t make me happy anymore?’ 

And finally, I believe many couples have married and had children later and are experiencing empty nesting at 50 or 55, and these major life transitions force us to examine what we really want out of life…and this might not include the person you’ve been looking across the table at for 30 or 40 years.  

Getting Some Grit and Grace

Regardless of what happened to break the camel’s back, so to speak, when you find yourself “suddenly single” after 50, you’ll definitely face a unique set of challenges. This will require a concerted effort, planning, and serious grit and grace to protect your happiness, health, and wealth.

Looking at wealth, divorce at any time has one of the biggest negative impacts on building a couple’s nest egg.

Here are some important factors to consider and baby steps to starting over…

  • Consider your family and children: Divorce is hard on everyone, even when it’s a joint decision and amicable. Financially dependent children or adult children who still require parental support represent a major consideration. It’s important to discuss the children factor with your spouse and attorney. Equally important are the emotional effects that divorce has on children. Sometimes, it’s worse for adult children. Be careful not to overlook these emotional issues for everyone involved.
  • Mind your income sources…In your 50s is typically when people hit their peak earning years, which is the good news. Conversely, income from employment changes as you go past the 50 milestones. The talent pool you’re competing in changes. So if you find yourself suddenly unemployed and looking for work as you also face divorce, it’s critical to have some safeguards in place. Protecting your income from work becomes vital if you’re facing the prospect of divorce.  It’s also very important to consider all potential future salary scenarios for you and your spouse before you agree to any financial details in your divorce agreement.
  • Dividing your retirement nest egg: A divorce can impact your retirement nest egg…big time. But it can also affect your liabilities. Most people think about how it will impact assets, but I know from experience that your joint liabilities can be assigned unfairly during a divorce. Financially devastating the other spouse in the process.

During a gray divorce, that six or seven-figure nest egg you’ve built as a couple will suddenly be significantly cut down. Hopefully, it’s divided fairly. But that’s why you need a certified financial divorce analyst to help in this process. There are also tax consequences that need to be considered.

  • Protecting your health: Understanding your healthcare needs and health insurance coverages is important. You must also think beyond your employer’s health benefits when you’re retired. If you plan to retire before you’re eligible for Medicare, you need to consider COBRA and Individual Health Insurance Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) can help you bridge the gap.
  • Care issues: In cases of elderly divorcing couples, or for couples when one is the healthcare provider for the other, there are significantly more issues to address. Sometimes, you may even need to consider a guardian or conservator.

As unsettling and crappy as it may feel to start all over again at 50 or older, here are some baby steps to keep in mind. I am also including a link to my Ultimate Divorce Checklist.

Envision Your New Single Life

When couples decide to divorce after many years of marriage, they face not one but two sources of unsettling uncertainty –a newly single life plus an entirely new phase of life around the corner…retirement. Or perhaps, you’re already retired.  You may have recently made decisions with your partner about retirement, and now you’re faced with redefining what retirement looks like for you. In a perfect world, you’d get this gray divorce thing over with before retirement, so you’d avoid planning your life in retirement twice…if only life could be that well planned out.

The question remains, regardless of when the divorce happens…what do you want your life to look like?  Who do you want to be? Where do you want to be? Who do you want to surround yourself with? How do you want to spend your time? Whether you’re married or single, facing or in retirement, the questions don’t change much. In the case of divorce, this is an opportunity for you to design life on your own terms. If the divorce wasn’t your decision, you can see this as a silver lining just because I’m a half-glass full kind of person.

Know Your Options and Get Good Help

Regardless of the split and subsequent divorce, it’s critical to get educated about all your options, create a comprehensive plan, and then try to move on as best as possible. There are some excellent resources to help you navigate this potentially unknown territory. And it’s not just the divorce process, but potentially the retirement preparation process as well, which brings up so many other issues to deal with. I highly recommend you find the help you can trust. There are divorce mediators, coaches, lawyers, and a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) or Certified Divorce Financial Analysts (or CDFA’s), which many women aren’t even aware exist. They can provide tremendous collaboration and support to protect yourself financially. Investing in the right team is extremely valuable…trust me, I know.

Formulate a sustainable future 

Once you have the legal and financial aspects figured out, you must focus on your future and formulate a plan. Remember, a goal without a plan is just a wish. Fortune favors the smart, the bold, and the prepared. The mantra that I created from the famous quote.

Dr. Joe Coughlin, head of the cutting-edge AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that a good life is based on having sound finances, a thriving social network, a strong sense of purpose, and fun, as you look forward to a better future life. He suggests putting in place the three “F’s” as your foundation for a sustainable future: Friends, Finances, and a Forward Focus. My suggestion is similar but is to create a plan for being HappiHER, HealthiHER and WealthiHER. 

I, too, believe that when you have all three elements (regardless of what you call them) firmly in place, chances are much higher that you’ll end up in a better place despite a major life transition you may have never expected. You can divorce, retire and live better than you’ve imagined. It all starts with you and a little help from experts, family, and friends. You’ve got this. Let’s Get Her Done. Don’t forget to check out the link to my Ultimate Divorce Checklist.

 

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