The assumption that couples married for two or three decades will follow through with the “til death do us part” portion of their vows is dead.
These days, it’s more likely to see older couples divorcing than it was years ago. For some, divorcing late in life, also known as “gray divorce”, is a result of empty nest syndrome, where their kids have left the house and they realize they’re not as in love as they once were or lack common interests, while for others it could be involuntary, with one spouse finding someone else.
“Divorce these days is more acceptable,” said , a Chicago divorce lawyer and author of “When Happily Ever After Ends.” “So the fact that divorce is Karen Covyeasier to get and more socially acceptable, and there’s a bigger group of people in that age group to begin with, makes for the perfect storm for why this demographic is the biggest divorce demographic.”
Divorce for people 50 and older has roughly doubled since the 1990s, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center.
Sue Gross, wife of money manager and Pacific Investment Management Co (Pimco) co-founder Bill Gross, recently filed for divorce after 31 years of marriage. Other high-profile figures who divorced decades after tying the knot include actors Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, after 30 years of marriage; Al and Tipper Gore, after 40 years of marriage; and Morgan Freeman and Myrna Colley-Lee, after 24 years of marriage.
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Though increasingly popular, getting divorced at an older age can be scary for many, especially those who have identified themselves mostly as a husband or wife for so long. Finances are turned upside down as couples try to pick apart what belongs to whom, where they’ll live and how they’ll support themselves independently. Families, meanwhile, are mending from hurt feelings and emotional stress.
“Divorce can rock anybody’s world, but the longer you’ve been married the longer invested you are in seeing yourself as a married person,” Covy said. “You never thought your world would change or your spouse would bail on you.”
In fact, among all adults 50 and older who divorced in the past year, 34% had been in their prior marriage for at least 30 years, and 12% had been married for 40 years or longer, Pew’s research showed. “Many later-life divorcees have grown unsatisfied with their marriages over the years and are seeking opportunities to pursue their own interests and independence for the remaining years of their lives,” Pew said.
Regardless of the reason, when it comes to a legal separation later in life, the soon-to-be or newly divorced should prepare themselves:
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One of the most challenging aspects of getting divorced after a long marriage is sifting through the finances, Covy said. Money that used to support one household will have to stretch to two, and if you’re already retired, you may be stuck to a fixed income. Understand your finances by creating a cash flow or budget statement and clearly identifying your assets and debts, said Sacha Millstone, a financial adviser at The Millstone Evans Group of Raymond James in Boulder, Colo.
Homes are part of marital assets, but divorcées should figure out the value of the home and divide it accordingly — though some may want to stay in the house, it may not make sense to value it over cash since a person can’t live in a home without funds. Social Security isn’t a concern, as divorcées can claim their former spouse’s Social Security benefits without impacting the other, so long as the person claiming their former spouse’s benefits isn’t remarried, Millstone said. “Envision what you want your life to look like, and take the time to think about how you want your new life to be,” Millstone said. “You can make proactive decisions and make a realistic spending plan so that you end up in a situation you will be happy with.”
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Find a comfortable living arrangement
It could be hard to detach yourself from the marital home, especially if it’s the home where you raised your children, but in some cases, it just doesn’t work to keep it. With a third of baby boomers (people born between 1948 and 1964) single, more are deciding to bunk up with each other, similar to the premise of the ‘80s sitcom “The Golden Girls.” The demand for this lifestyle has been fueled by later-in-life divorces, said Bonnie Moore, chief executive of the Golden Girls Network, which pairs roommates. If this is the route you wish to take, she suggested you write a written house agreement with house rules and have a lease agreement. If you’re buying a home to retire in, have a plan, consider being close to family and friends and know the tax implications of your purchases.
Be flexible, especially when it comes to possibly needing a job
Sometimes, even retired people need to go back into the workforce to make a living. This is especially true of women over 65, who risk falling beneath the poverty line. If this sounds like you, consider job-hunting. Looking for a job later in life isn’t always easy, as older people tend to fight employer biases that they’re not capable or interested in working. If you’re searching for a job, update your resume with relevant skills and stay physically fit, experts say. “You have two choices: bring more money in or spend less,” Covy said. “If you need to get a job, suck it up and do it because what you don’t want to have happen is you’re 80 years old and eating cat food.”
Take the opportunity to appreciate this fresh start
Older divorcées should embrace change, and recognize as an opportunity for a fresh start, Millstone said, adding that a lot of women over 60 initiate their divorces for this very reason. Divorce means being flexible, Covy said, since you’ll likely have to change your lifestyle. In some cases, you may need to make compromises, but acknowledge that it isn’t too late to live the life you want. “As much as it might suck to get divorced later in life and as angry as you may be to be put in that situation, remember you only have a limited number of years left to enjoy this life,” Covy said. “You have the ability to take control of whatever life you wanted.”
(This story has been updated.)