Gray divorces on the rise - what's at stake?

By Thomas Franz
BridgeTower Media Newswires

Roughly 25 percent of individuals who are going through a divorce currently are over the age of 50.

That rate is double from what it was just 20 years ago, and a pair of attorneys are hearing similar stories from clients as to why they’re eager for a change later in life.

“There are lots of reasons that contribute. There’s less of a stigma with divorce. By the time you get to your 50s, your kids are grown, and sometimes you put all of your energy into your kids and family life, and all of a sudden you look at your spouse and question what you have in common anymore,” said Jessica Woll, managing partner and divorce law specialist at Woll & Woll PC in Birmingham.

With divorces in this age group on the rise, Woll and Julia A. Perkins, a family law lawyer at Varnum LLP in Novi said those couples have different topics to consider while divorcing as opposed to younger couples.

What’s at stake?

Every situation is different, but as opposed to arguing for custody of children like most younger divorcing couples, Perkins said items like 401(k)s, real estate and inheritances are frequent topics of discussion in divorce proceedings with older couples.

“I always ask my clients, ‘What’s important to you? What are you concerned about?’ Sometimes, it’s a general answer like retiring or whether or not they’ll have enough to live on,” Perkins said. “For others, they might focus on a particular asset like their 401(k).  They don’t want to give any aspect of it up. They might want to structure a settlement that will give up another asset in lieu of having to divide the 401(k).”

Woll added that financial concerns are especially key to older clients.

“I think there are more financial concerns when you’re that age. Typically, Social Security can be an issue. If you’re married for at least 10 years, you can claim half of your spouse’s Social Security if it’s higher than yours. Typically, women historically have had lower Social Security, and dividing retirement benefits can be a frightening thing when you start looking at later in life,” Woll said.

Perkins and Woll each said that lawyers should consider getting help from a financial planner to help value the belongings of the couple in divorce proceedings.

“These people might own businesses or classic cars that are worth a lot of money, they have art, they have other collections they’ve been working on, and they shouldn’t divide those things just by dividing them in half. You should have them valued to understand what the estate is worth,” Perkins said.

“I think having a really good financial planner involved is a good thing so that when they are actually are dividing wealth, they have a good plan for their future,” Woll added. “I think you have to be more careful with how they’re going to survive the rest of their lives if they’re at a certain age, that’s really important.”

Reasons for divorcing later

During the time span of 20 years in which divorces for couples in their 50s have increased, Woll and Perkins said there are several contributing factors for couples making the decision to divorce.

Woll said more women initiate divorce at that age than men do, and that many of them are seeking more of an emotional connection.

Woll also added that many individuals divorcing in their 50s are in a second marriage, which have higher divorce rates than first marriages because of issues resulting from blending families.

In other cases, Woll said individuals are saying they simply want more out of life once they become empty nesters.

“A lot of people are saying their marriage has run its course, and it’s time to move on,” Woll said. “People are having the courage to say I didn’t regret these years, but I just need to go in this other direction.”

Woll cited parents not putting enough priority on their marriage while raising children as a big reason for gray divorces occurring, but offered some advice to curb that trend.

“A lot of research has come out that people are not putting their marriage first, so when you do when you’re an empty nester, it’s too late,” Woll said.

“I think having a date night with your spouse is really important. Your kids only briefly live with you, but your marriage is for a lifetime, and you have to work at it. It can’t be second to your kids. I think if that trend takes off, it might help marriages last longer.”