In Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, the character Bill asks Mike, “How did you go bankrupt?” To which Mike replies, “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.” This phrase could also describe why couples over 50 are now seeing the highest divorce rates among all age groups in the world.
Divorce after 50, also called gray divorce, is seeing an unprecedented rise globally. Why this sudden itch to seek greener pastures? The reasons are complex, but boil down to three:
Many couples married and had children later and are experiencing empty nests at home for the first time at 50 or 55, prompting a hard look at what they want out of life.
More women are earning incomes independently, shattering a big barrier to divorce in the past – splitting one income. Regardless of which spouse is the breadwinner, two incomes with employer benefits make divorce much more manageable.
With over 50% of people in mid-life today looking to live past 85, the prospect of “putting up with” someone they’ve been long married to seems less palatable for an additional 30 to 40+ years.
Getting an understanding of what led you to the divorce path, then imagining a future that is more purposeful, fulfilling, and connected will enable you to manage the process for the healthiest restructuring of your family as possible.
Factors to Consider in a Gray Divorce
Regardless of what the final straw may have been, when you’re suddenly single after 50 you face a unique set of challenges that require a more careful look and thoughtful planning to avoid big pitfalls:
Income sources: Your income prospects may look vastly different at 50 than they did when you were 20, or even a few years ago. The market demand for talent is different. Your personal circumstances may make you or your spouse about ready to hit your peak earning years. Conversely, you or your spouses’ skills may be becoming obsolete, and income may be substantially less going forward. It’s critical to think through all potential future salary scenarios for you and your spouse before agreeing to final terms on paying, receiving, or waiving spousal support.
Retirement finances: Having your nest egg cut in half magnifies your financial challenges no matter how many zeros are in your combined 401(k)s and IRAs. The more accounts you have, the more complex the options for splitting them and potential creative solutions for tax minimization.
Health and insurance: Your ability to manage healthcare and health insurance may present significant challenges if you won’t qualify for employer benefits and are not close to qualifying for Medicare. COBRA and Individual Health Insurance Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) can bridge the gap.
Family and children: Divorce is hard on everyone, even when it’s relatively amicable. There are additional financial challenges if you’re financially supporting children. Discuss these with your attorney, spouse, and kids as appropriate. Equally important are the emotional and social ripple effects that a parental divorce can create for the adult children involved. Don’t take these for granted and consider whether even a few counseling sessions would benefit everyone.
Mental capacity issues: In cases of elderly divorcing couples, the potential for cognitive or other impairments or addictions to negatively influence decision-making can also come into play. In some cases, you may even need to consider a guardian or conservator.
Four Keys to a Prudent Gray Divorce
As unsettling as it may feel to start all over again at midlife, there’s a lot you can do to create a better post-divorce future. Executing well on these four crucial elements will make it easier for you.
Clarify what you want
When you divorce after decades of marriage you face not one, but two big sources of uncertainty – the prospect of a single life plus the unknowns surrounding the age typically associated with retirement. What do you really want out of life for you? What does that life look like on a day-to-day basis? Who do you want to be part of that life – friends, family, professional contacts? Take the time to think through (with as much detail as you can) what your ideal life looks like. Write it down. Only invite those people who make you better or nourish your soul to be part of your next chapter.
Examine your options
What happened between you and your spouse is in the past. No matter how it played out, it benefits you to navigate the divorce process thoughtfully and to land on a mutually agreeable outcome in the end.
There are humane and sound methods to divorce, including collaborative or “holistic” approaches, that take the aid of professionally trained individuals (such as mediators and divorce coaches) to help you get to the best outcome for you. These processes address all aspects of divorce, including the financial and emotional, and can help you work through a challenging time in a supported and holistic way. Explore all options, then trust your gut.
Hire qualified professional help
A well-qualified divorce attorney you feel comfortable with is a must. In addition, a Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) or Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA®) can provide strategic asset and income tax strategies and the strong financial expertise that is crucial to helping you achieve future financial stability in an emotionally tumultuous time.
Investing time and money upfront to hire the right fit team is crucial to navigate your divorce with appropriate communication, smart decision making, and sound negotiations. This will ensure you obtain a result you won’t regret.
Formulate a sustainable future
It is important to focus on your future and formulate a positive outlook for what is yet to come.
A big part of a successful gray divorce is laying the foundation for a hope-driven future.
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. Ensure that you’re putting in place the three “F’s” as your foundation for a sustainable future: Friends, Finances, and a Forward Focus. When you have all three elements firmly in place, chances are much higher that you’ll end up in a better place despite a life change you may have never expected.
What next? If you’re contemplating divorce at midlife or later, consider taking these steps to put yourself firmly on the path to a better future.
Understand the implications of the pandemic on your divorce timeline. Do you have the space and the ability to think clearly without disturbance? To talk privately to attorneys? Does it make sense to move now, amidst court delays and complications, or wait a little longer for a return of more normalcy in the court system?
Get a grasp of your finances. Do you know how much money you have for the future? Do you have a good sense of how much money you’ll need to support yourself post-divorce? Crunch your numbers with a qualified financial professional for a realistic picture as soon as you can. Then crunch the numbers again before you sign your final papers.
Think through the intangibles and ripple effects. Your kids, your larger extended family, your circle of friends all have come to rely on you as part of a married couple. How will a divorce change these things? Give yourself time and space to really think through all scenarios. Brainstorm with a therapist, trusted friend, and a family member to gain a wide range of perspectives.
Author: Heather L. Locus
Date: Aug 12, 2021- 09:30 am EDT