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Gray Divorces: A Growing Trend

This article was written by Hance Law Group associate attorney Beverly Via.

In recent years, we have seen first-hand a growing trend, referred to as the “gray divorce” phenomenon, involving couples who are at least 50 years of age. According to a Washington Post article from October 2014, divorce for couples over 50 has doubled since 1990, and one in four divorcing couples now fit this “gray divorce” category.

A number of social factors are contributing to this rise in older couples determining that divorce – rather than carrying on in unhappy marriages – is an option, and for many in this situation, divorce is seen as something that is positive and free.

But it also has its challenges. In most “gray divorce” cases, children from the marriage are at least 18 and so issues around custody and parenting time don’t factor in. Yet, financial issues can be more complex, as couples over 50 are more likely to have more assets, including those that can’t be easily liquidated. If one spouse hasn’t worked outside of the home for a number of years, spousal support (more commonly known as alimony) might need to be part of the overall settlement.

Couples who decide to divorce under the collaborative process can bring a financial neutral onto the team, which is an effective option for any divorcing couple who needs to divide assets and debts. Having one shared financial professional encourages full, honest disclosure of those assets and debts, and the collaborative process allows for a more creative range of options than the courts do.

For instance, if one spouse started a business after the marriage, and the other spouse has the right to a portion of the value of the business, the courts might arrive at “sell the business” as the only option for splitting that asset. But through the collaborative process, the couple could arrive at some alternate form of compensation that leaves both parties satisfied and the business intact. It might involve future earnings, it might involve compensation through other assets in the marital estate – but it’s something that can be assessed and negotiated with more attention than the court might opt to give it.

The creative approach can also help with the question of spousal support that might arise if one spouse has not been working outside the home. The courts may award spousal support in those cases, provided the marriage has reached the ten-year mark, but couples in collaborative negotiations often come up with more mutually-satisfactory solutions than the courts come up with.

Health care costs are another major financial concern in gray divorces. If one spouse had the other on his or her policy linked to a job, the other spouse very possibly would opt for COBRA to extend that policy. But there still might need to be some bridge between when COBRA eligibility runs out and when Medicare kicks in – and health care can make up a significant portion of a household budget.

If a couple doesn’t want to commit to the collaborative process but wants to avoid court, each party should make sure his or her lawyer understands that intention before starting the process. There is a range of options available that don’t involve court – depending on how close both parties are, they might be able to address their needs through the limited scope services we offer or they might get to a settlement through a mediation session.

The rise in gray divorces indicates that people aren’t as willing to “run out the clock” on their marriages, which reflects a society where people are living longer and are more active than ever as they approach and enjoy retirement. But if couples can avoid acrimony in their divorces – no matter what the age – it makes for a more hopeful beginning to this new, post-divorce chapter.