The Unique Challenges of a Gray Divorce

Melody Z. RichardsonDivorce

Google “gray divorce” and you will find hundreds of articles on the subject. According to research, while divorce rates are trending downward in general, the number of couples getting divorced in their 50s and 60s is increasing. Why does this merit so much attention? The simple answer is that if one is 40 and getting a divorce, there are 25 good work years left and plenty of time to seek education and training to re-enter the work force. If you are 50 or older, it is not that easy.

There is no doubt that getting divorced later in life creates challenges not faced by younger couples. The most unique aspect of the gray divorce is that the bread winner is so close to retirement. Most of the gray divorces we have handled were traditional marriages: the husband earned the money and the wife reared the children, but never returned to the work force once the children were out of the house. Some of those families had accumulated vast wealth, which made moving forward with the divorce a little easier, but some had spent what they earned and had only enough in retirement accounts to support one household through retirement, but not two.

It is difficult to require the breadwinner at age 64 to pay alimony for 10 years. There is no guaranty he will work that long, and some folks have mandatory retirement at as young as age 62. The wife is terrified that without alimony, there will not be enough income generated from investment assets or retirement accounts to prevent her from ending up in a card board box under a via duct. Even in those situations where there are more than sufficient assets to keep the wife comfortable even if she lives to 98, she has a very difficult time not being fearful that she will run out of money.

Because of the age of the women, returning to the work force is not a good option. It is generally acknowledged that finding a job if you are over 50 is a huge challenge, and if you have been out of the work force for 30 years or more, or, worse, out of the workforce with only a high school education, you would be lucky to find a job for minimum wage as a Wal Mart greeter. That fear is understandable and we have found that everyone involved in the process of a gray divorce is sensitive to it.

On the flip side, the husband does not want to feel like an indentured servant and be forced to work until they carry him out of the office in a pine box. He may have been looking forward to retirement in the near future after a long career. Accordingly, the husband is often resistant to be required to pay alimony for an extended period of time.

Striking a comfortable balance between the two fears is difficult but imperative. It requires quite a bit of creativity that is born of the couples specific financial circumstances. Because a gray divorce requires fashioning solutions that are unique to older individuals, Collaborative Divorce and other alternative dispute resolution methods are much appropriate for those situations than litigating the case.