Baby boomers and 50 shades of gray divorce

Baby boomers and 50 shades of gray divorce

Shades of gray seem to be red hot these days, including divorce.

More clients than ever come to my family law practice seeking a divorce after a long-term marriage of 20, 30, or even 40 years. This isn’t an isolated situation. Divorce professionals are witnessing a steady rise in the number of divorces involving couples over age 50 — so-called “grey divorces.”

Former vice president Al Gore and his wife, Tipper present a classic example, announcing their decision to divorce after 40 years of marriage in 2010.

Divorce among baby boomers is booming. According to Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin of Bowling Green State University, grey divorces have doubled in just 20 years, even while overall divorce rates have declined slightly. One in four divorced people were over age 50 in 2009, versus one in 10 in 1990. The grand total: over 600,000 people age 50 and older got divorced in 2009.

As with so many social shifts, the demographics of the baby boomer population are the reason. Baby boomers in most grey divorces have more self-oriented expectations about marriage. They managed to stay together to raise their children. Now that the kids are on their own, many decide it’s time to focus on personal goals and interests. Life expectancy is increasing, and someone 50 years old can easily live another 20, 30, even 40 years. People decide they don’t want to continue in an unfulfilling marriage for several decades.

There are some additional trends worth pointing out. First, over half of these divorcing spouses have already been through at least one divorce. Second, according to a 2004 study by the American Association of Retired Persons, women are usually the ones asking for divorce; two-thirds of divorces among people age 40-69 were requested by the female spouse. It’s not surprising; women live far longer and generally in better health than men and are willing to strike out on their own.

Cheating does not seem to be a major factor in most grey divorces. About one in four couples cite infidelity as a contributing factor to divorce. This number is steady across all age groups.

Challenges of a gray divorce

Grey divorces pose unique challenges. Where one spouse retired early or stayed at home while the other worked, the financial realities can be quite serious. While California calls for keeping the financially disadvantaged spouse at the same standard of living through thedivision of assets and spousal support, the ex receiving support is usually eventually expected to earn his or her own income. Finding employment can be very difficult in the current economy, especially for those over age 50.

Beyond retirement age, roughly age 65 for most people, pensions, individual retirement accounts or 401(k)s, and Social Security retirement benefits can all factor in. The lesser earner of a divorcing couple is entitled to Social Security retirement benefits based on the higher earner’s work record, as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years.

While child support isn’t a concern in the majority of gray divorces, alimony can be the big issue. A spouse awarded alimony can collect until he or she remarries, or dies. Just living together can also affect the amount of alimony in some states, so avoiding marriage in order to continue to get full alimony doesn’t always work out.

Further, parties to an aging divorce are more likely to suffer from serious medical problems, depression and complicated family issues. After decades of marriage, divorce can come as a shock. These problems require careful attention, management and external support.

And just because your children are adults, it doesn’t mean the divorce won’t rock their world. It can shake the foundation of the family structure they believed in while growing up and be a tremendous shock. Parents who get divorced never really avoid dealing with the fallout on their children, no matter their ages.

Gray divorces can be ideal candidates for the collaborative divorce process. In a collaborative divorce, the parties agree to work with their own individual team of professionals including an attorney, financial planner, and coaches who are licensed mental health professionals to come to an equitable agreement for the entire family outside the court system.

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