First, the good news: overall divorce rates in the U.S. have declined in the past twenty years. But there's some not-so-good news for married couples over fifty: in that age group, the rate of divorce has increased; in fact, it has doubled. As of 2012, one out of every four people going through divorce was over fifty — and one in ten was over sixty-five.
Fifty is by no means “old,” but we refer to couples over fifty going through divorce as “older couples,” because most people who divorce do so earlier in life, after fewer years of marriage. Why the increase in the divorce rate for older couples, whom you would think, by this stage in their marriage, had worked out the bugs, so to speak? And what considerations do older couples need to take into account?
There are a number of possible reasons for the increase in divorce for couples over fifty. One is that there's less stigma attached to divorce than there used to be. It could be that as more people see others their age pursuing a divorce, they realize they don't have to stay in an unhappy marriage because society expects it.
They also may not have realized the depth of their unhappiness until they were in their fifties. Busy work lives and hours devoted to children and their activities can mask the fact that a couple has little in common. Once retirement comes and the nest is empty, one or both partners may see that what's left is not enough. Women, who in the past may not have been able to survive financially after divorce, are more likely to be self-supporting now, and less likely to stay in an unhappy marriage for financial reasons.
There's also the statistical reality that second marriages are more likely to fail than first marriages, and third marriages more likely to fail than second ones. Some of the couples who are going through a so-called “gray divorce” may not be divorcing for the first time. That said, more than half of all gray divorces are to those who are in a first marriage, and the majority of those have lasted over 20 years. This may be because expectations for the fulfillment marriage should offer have risen over time. Simply put, people want more out of marriage than their grandparents did, and they're more willing to leave if they don't get it.
There are two overarching themes divorcing couples over fifty need to take into account: social/emotional and financial.
On the social/emotional side, think about your support system. By the time you're in your fifties, many of your friends tend to be other couples. Your divorce decree doesn't say who gets custody of the friends, but it's worth thinking about, as friends tend to drift toward one divorcing spouse and away from the other. Who will be your support system when you divorce, especially if you initiated the divorce or others see it as being “your fault?”
Additionally, while you may not have to worry about custody and parenting schedules, your divorce will have an impact on your relationships with your kids. If your adult children blame you for the divorce, you risk becoming estranged from them and your grandchildren, further weakening your support system.
Then there's the financial side of things. Despite the conventional wisdom that men's standard of living goes up after divorce and women's goes down, the reality is that both may suffer. There are now two households to support, not one. There may may no longer be child support payments, but there might still be children to put through college. Who is paying the tuition? What happens if they don't?
And don't forget alimony, also known as spousal support. If one spouse was out of the work force for years caring for the kids, it's unlikely that he or she is going to be able to pick up and be able to re-start a career that will allow for self-support this close to retirement age. And speaking of retirement, retirement benefits earned by one spouse during the marriage are community property. In short, divorcing after fifty means that couples may have a much different, and less comfortable, retirement than they had planned.
Even with the potential emotional and financial challenges, getting a divorce after the age of fifty might still be the right decision for you. You have a lot of life ahead of you, and the power to make the next chapter a good one.
If you're over fifty and considering, or confronted with, a divorce in California, you have many issues to think about. We invite you to contact Shaffer & Associates online or call (619) 595-3167 today to schedule a free consultation with an experienced California divorce attorney who can properly advise you regarding the appropriate next steps.