'Gray divorces' are a significant part of matrimonial law practices

Peter Vieth
The Daily Record Newswire

Many aging boomers start thinking about divorce when their children leave home. The rate of divorce among couples age 50 and over doubled in a 20-year span ending in 2010, according to a 2013 study by Bowling Green State University. Many matrimonial lawyers have “gray di­vorces” as a significant part of their prac­tice.

Clients give various reasons. Some were unhappy, but waited until the kids were out of the house. Others are just “fed up.”

“I don’t have many good years left, and I sure as hell don’t want to spend them with her,” one client in his 80s exclaimed, according to Fairfax lawyer Matthew H. Smith.

Smith said he had seen an increase in divorce among older clients . Lawyers elsewhere reported no recent increase, but said divorce of old­er couples remains a steady part of their work.

Leslie A. Shaner of Chesterfield, who authored the ABA-published book “Di­vorce in the Golden Years,” said emotional or physical abuse is a prominent reason many women decide to split later in life. “Women have more skills than they used to. They feel they can make it on their own,” she added.

A more commonplace reason applies equally for older couples: One of the spouses falls in love with someone else.

A gray divorce often involves different and more complex issues than with young­er couples. There are more assets, but  questions of child support and custody are absent.

“Asset management can create obsta­cles,” said Patrick L. Maurer of Chesa­peake. The couple might own out-of-state property or timeshares, he said. “Actualizing the value of them – that be­comes a problem” he added. “The real trick comes with the hybrid property, such as a house that was owned by one spouse before the marriage. Now you’ve got to find out what’s equi­table, and that’s not always equal.”

Smith said spousal support can be a thorny problem,. Normally, a judge would order alimony for a period of time to help a non-working spouse recover from the split.

“But if the breadwinner is nearing re­tirement at age 65, you don’t know what a judge is likely to do,” Smith said.

A wife may have passed up many profes­sional opportunities to run the house and raise the children, Maurer added. “She’s been a doctor’s wife for 30 years, plus. He’s going to retire. She’s dependent on his income,” Maurer said. “You may need to sock money away” for spousal support.

The example of the retiring doctor illus­trates one aspect of gray divorce  – few couples have the resources to enjoy the same lifestyle after a split. The income that supported one household is now divided be­tween two.

Often, there is unequal knowledge about the couple’s finances. Usually, one partner has managed the money. The other may be at a disadvantage unless a lawyer can even the score. “The attorney needs to ask tough ques­tions and/or issue discovery to the other side, Smith said.

Keep an eye out for interference from the now-grown children of the failing marriage, Shaner warned.

“They will take a side, and they will fight like cats and dogs,” she said.

The children have spent their whole lives observing the marriage. “They’ve got to put their two cents in,” Shaner said.

Family law attorneys agree that most gray divorces call for lawyers knowledge­able about financial assets who are willing to work hard on the case.

“It’s complex litigation when you get into some of this stuff,” Maurer said. “You need to make sure to get a lawyer with the knowledge and the time to provide the at­tention to detail that’s required.”

Shaner said she wrote her book to help younger lawyers get up to speed on han­dling divorces for older clients.

She urged lawyers to dig below the sur­face when putting their case before a judge.

Many will simply ask the client how long they’ve been married, and stop there.

It’s important to ferret out the details and experiences, Shaner said. Did the wife have to work because the husband was drunk for three years? Did the couple have to raise a special needs child?

“Tell the story of the marriage,” Shaner urged. “Tell the judge or mediator what that person has gone through.”

Steven L. Raynor of Charlottesville said he sometimes questions whether it makes sense for an older couple to divorce, espe­cially if they are well into retirement.

Splitting the financial assets can be tricky when separation – without divorce – might relieve the couple’s conflict.

Raynor said he looks at what would happen to the survivor if one spouse died. “Would they have rather been divorced, or would they have been better off as a surviv­ing spouse?”

Raynor says the law does not require a couple to divorce just because they decide to live separately.

A basic knowledge of trusts and estates law will help couples arrive at the right de­cision, he said.