Divorce at 50 and Beyond

Current social science literature reports in a phenomenon labeled “grey divorce” a significant increase in divorces among couples age 50 and older. During the last two decades the divorce rate has remained basically stable for the general population. In 2010, however the rate for those 50 and above was more than 2.5 times the comparable rate in 1990. In other words in 1990 roughly 1 in 10 people 50 and older were divorced; in 2010 that ratio was one in four.[1]   The importance of this trend is even more significant given that about half of the married population is now over 50.

The trend is not being driven by an increase in fifty year old men in the midst of a mid-life crisis “desperately clinging to youth.” Women actually have a slight edge. Among women 50 and older, 10.3 per 1000 are divorced versus 9.8 men per 1000.[2]

Women in the workplace seems to be an important factor. For women, full-time employment and higher income are positively related to the increased risk of divorce. For men the opposite is true. Women are also more willing to divorce from longer term marriages than their male counterparts.[3] Confidence in their financial autonomy seems to encourage women to leave unfulfilling and sometimes abusive relationships of 20 years or more. While the trend of grey divorce is seen among men, women are the initiators slightly more than half of the time.

So what issues are present to people in the 50 and over age group who are contemplating divorce? A perhaps unexpected concern is shared with the younger divorcing couples, that is, the impact on the children. Even though the children in this age group are often grown, out of the house and financially independent, the parents’ divorce often hurts. This suggests that when looking for emotional support during a grey divorce, one should not look to their children as a source. Just like couples in their thirties, leave the children out of it. In some instances adult or almost-adult children may know that their parents had an unfulfilling or even abusive marriage, but one cannot rely upon this knowledge leading to their agreement with the choice to divorce. They may see the situation as mutual mistreatment rather than abuser and abused. Additionally, my experience is that even in the case of very dysfunctional parents, children often have a nearly unexplainable affection for their natural parents. Yes, Dad may be a jerk, but he is still dad. Mom may be overbearing and stifling, but she is still mom. So, when identifying sources of support during this highly traumatic time leave the children in out of it; in the end they do not want to be in the middle.

Property division is also much more complicated in the termination of a twenty, twenty-five or thirty year marriage. Typically, there is just more stuff to divide – or worse – more debt. In Ohio marital property; that is, marital assets and marital debts, are divided equally, unless such a division would be inequitable. What is inequitable can vary by case, but it is not who earned most (or all) of the money. If the money was earned during the marriage, it is marital and will likely be split right down the middle.

At the very beginning of the determination of an equitable property division is the identification of property as either separate or marital. Marital property is typically divided equally. But separate property generally goes to the party who acquired it, either before the marriage or by gift or inheritance during the marriage. Whether any portion is to be allocated to the divorcing spouse is determined by whether the property is traceable. In simplest terms this means can we still see the property in its original form or can we track it through the marriage.

Property division – while not directly related – impacts the issue of spousal support, or what used to be called alimony. In Ohio spousal support presents issues not only of an amount (even if zero), but also the duration of payments and whether the amount or term of payments may be modified by further order of the court. These sub-issues have complexities of their own even without their interrelationship. It is not uncommon for long-term marriages to have a life-long obligation of spousal support. But what happens when the payer reaches retirement age and experiences a reduction in pay? Or what happens when the recipient begins receiving a retirement pension (perhaps obtained in the property division), social security (or state equivalent) or both? What impact, if any, is the remarriage of the recipient? What if the payer gets laid off or terminated from her/his position? Does either party have a large inheritance in the future? All of these uncertainties impact the fairness of a property division and the amount, term and modifiability of spousal support.

You can see the road from a twenty year plus marriage to being single again is not without twists, turns and potholes. As with younger divorce, the best strategy is to avoid the potholes in the first place. While any divorce is traumatic, we can help avoid these bumps so your new life begins in as stable a manor as possible.

If you think further discussion would be helpful, please contact us.

[1] “The Gray Divorce Revolution: Rising Divorce among Middle-aged and Older Adults, 1990-2010;” Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin, Department of Sociology, Bowling Green State University, March 2013, at 13-14.

[2] Id., at 15.

[3] Id., at 18.

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