The divorce rate in the United States hit a 50-year low in 2019 as a percentage of all marriages, continuing a decades-long trend. But like a lot of “trends,” the divorce rate is not the same across all demographics. For American adults who have hit the 50-year mark, divorce rates have actually doubled since the 1990s, according to the Pew Research Center. In my own mediation and collaborative law practice, I have seen a continuing increase in “gray divorce” since the early years of my practice. These over-50 couples are often choosing mediation or collaborative law because they are interested in the benefits of the two processes including saving money and preserving family relationships.
Divorce is seldom pleasant and, after age 50, may be complicated by multiple issues. Financial factors such as income, retirement savings, and insurance require detailed and comprehensive review. Long-term relationships between extended family members must be considered in deciding how to work through the divorce. Forgetfulness or impairments may complicate both negotiation and litigation in some situations. Some top considerations:
Earning and Income
By 50, many people are hitting their peak earning years. Many are planning to retire at age 60. After age 70, many have retired. These considerations are essential in the gray divorce when working on long-term budgets, dividing retirement accounts, and determining what type of spousal support or alimony will be necessary for both parties to continue to make ends meet.
When couples work on their post-divorce budget, they realize the truth in the old saying, “two can live as cheaply as one.” This can be even more profound for folks divorcing after, or close to, retirement. Equitable distribution requires that all marital assets be divided. This includes pensions and retirement accounts. Once a previously-adequate 401(k) is divided in half, it may no longer be sufficient for retirement. When multiple pensions and retirement accounts are involved, negotiations can be more complicated. Of course, using the collaborative process tends to provide more significant opportunities to find ways to maximize the funds available to both parties.
After a divorce, parties have to obtain their own health insurance. They can be difficult if they don’t qualify for Medicare. Parties can explore options available through COBRA and Individual Health Insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to find sufficient health insurance for the parties until they qualify for Medicare.
Adult children and extended family: Divorce affects other family members too. Sometimes people think that adult children are not affected. However, parents often rely on their adult children for emotional support, damaging extended family relationships. The lesson is to be mindful in the collaborative process or mediation. Adult children may also have strong emotional connections to both parents. They also will need to adapt to a new image of their family. In the gray divorce, extended family such as grandchildren may be impacted by the change in the relationships and how family-centered events occur. When the divorcing couple has been married 30 or 40 years they may have close relationships with their in-laws that they want to preserve. All of these relationships should be considered when working on a resolution in the divorce.
If either party has impairments, cognitive or otherwise, or substance abuse disorders, that will need to be addressed. Even subtle impairments can make it difficult to negotiate, and in cases involving serious impairment, decision-making will be impacted and accommodations may need to be established.
Where to Begin
What should you do if you are considering divorce after age 50? Start by learning about your options for counseling, financial, and legal advice, and select professionals that can focus on your needs. Thirty years ago, the only option available for persons seeking divorce was litigation: one party filed a petition seeking a divorce, the other an answer, and then during the course of the case, the parties would attend hearings and negotiate until they resolved the legal issues. Today, mediation and collaborative divorce bring the parties together to find the resolution best for them as they proceed through the process.
Once you understand the options, and if you decide to proceed, interview lawyers or mediators to learn more about the processes that they offer. Find a professional or professionals with whom you are comfortable. After you select a process and a professional, you will be creating an inventory of your assets and debts. That information will help the lawyer or mediator to help navigate the most financially healthy resolution. Being informed and prepared is the best way to maintain financial security and relationships, even when divorcing after 50.
Brenda Waugh, MA JD, is a lawyer/mediator with Waugh Law & Mediation, serving clients in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia and the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. A graduate of the University of Virginia, West Virginia University, and Eastern Mennonite University, she has conducted workshops throughout the United States and in Canada and has published articles in periodicals and legal journals in the area of alternative dispute resolution. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.By Brenda Waugh