Research has shown that in 2016, the overall divorce rate dropped to a 40-year low. While the rate of divorce has been lower overall, it is relatively higher for spouses over 50. Theories abound that the increase is due one factor or another, such as the longer lifespan enjoyed by many today or the fact that women are more financially independent than in earlier decades. Regardless of the reasons, the number of divorces of couples in their senior years, often call a gray divorce, is on the rise. What most don’t know is that divorcing in later years involves serious and significant issues usually not found in divorces in the younger population.
What Is a Gray Divorce?
“Gray divorce” is the term used to describe divorce of spouses over 50 years old. Divorce was not common in this age group in our parents’ and grandparents’ day, but gray divorce has been on the rise in recent years. This is significant. Although a gray divorce is not likely to involve the complicated issues of custody, child support, and parenting time of minor children as seen in younger divorces, parties to a senior divorce often face different and very challenging issues that can have an impact to the end of a party’s life.
Common Issues that Arise in a Divorce
Most divorces have a common set of issues. For example, the parties must divide the marital assets and debts. Additionally, one former spouse may be required to pay alimony to the other. And, if the parties have children, the divorce will define the parties’ rights and obligations regarding custody, child support, and parenting time.
Regardless of the specific issues involved, most divorces affect the spouses financially, emotionally, and socially. The division of assets and debts clearly impacts each partner’s post-divorce net worth and possibly his or her standard of living. Former spouses may also bear emotional wounds and feel the need to restructure their social lives following the split. The divorce marks the end of one phase in life and the beginning of a new phase.
How is a Gray Divorce Unique?
A gray divorce is like a typical divorce because it is likely to involve financial, emotional, and social issues. But in a gray divorce, these issues have a completely different flavor. When a young couple divorces, the financial impact can be severe, but each has years to work to get back on his or her feet financially. A party to a gray divorce is in his or her senior years, so he or she does not have the years to recover financially, emotionally, and socially as a younger party would. In fact, the effect of the divorce can last to the end of the former spouse’s life.
Issues to Consider in a Gray Divorce
Almost all divorces involve some aspect of the following issues:
- Identifying and valuing the marital property and marital debts
- Dividing the marital property and marital debts
- Determining alimony
When determining these issues, the parties are planning for their separate futures, so, in a sense, all divorces involve post-divorce planning.
Parties to a gray divorce are also planning for their post-divorce lives, but divorcing seniors have fewer years to make up the assets and income “lost” or divided in a divorce. As a result, parties to a gray divorce are planning for the rest of their lives, sometimes quite literally. With such high stakes, it is imperative parties to an elderly divorce to be aware of the senior’s perspective on the issues to be addressed in the divorce. Following are some of the key issues that parties to a gray divorce should keep in mind.
1. Financial Considerations of a Gray Divorce in NJ and Elsewhere
Division of the marital estate naturally results in each party ending up with less than they had together. This is true for parties in a gray divorce, too, but they also have a disadvantage: they have fewer earning years remaining to make up for the loss of the part of the estate set over to the other spouse. In fact, a retired spouse or a spouse who has not worked outside the home for years, if ever, may not easily find a way into the job market to help make up the difference in his or her financial situation post-divorce. Likewise, a party has fewer years to pay off any debt set over to him or her. As a result, in a gray divorce, each spouse’s standard of living can be impacted permanently.
Additionally, parties to a gray divorce feel an impact in their retirement, too. After a lifetime of planning for retirement together, post-divorce the parties may no longer be in a financial position to retire or to maintain their accustomed standard of living. Whether alimony is ordered can also be affected by the parties’ retirement status. Divorcing seniors need to anticipate and plan for these impacts on their financial futures.
2. Social Security Benefits after a Senior Divorce
A married partner may be eligible for Social Security benefits based on his or her spouse’s employment history. A former spouse may also be entitled to Social Security benefits based on his or her partner’s work history, but certain criteria must be met in order to qualify for benefits in that way. First, the person claiming benefits must have been married to the former spouse for at least 10 years, and, second, the person claiming benefits may not be married currently. Finally, generally the claimant must be at least 62 years old. Determining qualification to receive a former spouse’s Social Security benefits is complicated further if the claimant has had two or more marriages of at least 10 years.
3. Healthcare Following a Divorce Over 50
Divorcing seniors also need to consider the healthcare options available after divorce. A spouse covered by insurance through the other spouse’s employment or former employment may lose eligibility for coverage as a result of the divorce. If the newly ineligible spouse does not yet qualify for Medicare, that spouse may be left without affordable health insurance options following the divorce. Seniors generally have higher healthcare costs than younger generations. Parties to a gray divorce must consider the available options and cost of their post-divorce healthcare.
4. Seniors Caring for Grown Dependents after Divorcing
Seniors may also have elderly parents or boomerang children to provide for following a divorce. Some are caring for both adult children. With fewer assets following the division of the marital estate, the cost to care for grown dependents can be difficult to manage, and former spouses are not usually inclined to help provide for their former in-laws.
Parties to a gray divorce must carefully consider how they will meet these and related needs in determining how to divide the marital estate, which can include retirement accounts, pensions, inheritances, and other assets. The decreased disposable income available to many post-divorce may affect their plans for retirement. Additionally, parties to a senior divorce should seek professional advice to update their estate planning, bearing all of these factors in mind.
Parties to a gray divorce must carefully consider how they will meet their changing financial needs post-divorce in their senior years. Getting advice from a family law attorney experienced in gray divorce issues is necessary for a favorable result in your divorce. If you are considering a gray divorce in New Jersey (NJ), contact me, Elizabeth Rozin-Golinder, by filling out my Contact Form or calling (732) 810-0034. Located in East Brunswick, I have years of experience as an NJ divorce attorney, and I'll help you learn about the laws that apply toyour gray divorce.