The Gray Divorce And The Rapid Rise Of The Single Baby Boomer

A Career Choice and Life Perspective – Part 1

If you are reading this article, chances are you have seen the 1989 American romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally, a film comedically exploring the story of a decade long friendship that evolves into love and ultimately marriage.  As with many Hollywood romantic comedies, the movie ends with a sweet embrace and a wedding – a conclusion suggesting that the parties live happily ever after. An intriguing and endearing notion, but one that only serves to feed our escapist desires.  Call me cynical, but as a family law attorney and an adult child of divorce, I must wonder: What Happens When (If) Harry Divorces Sally?

As of 2020, the share of single-person households has reached a record high, with nearly 38 million adults in the United States living alone.  Of those 38 million adults, 16 million are 65 years of age or older – three times the number that lived alone in the 1960s.  CNN Health – The Single Baby Boomer.  Although there are several factors contributing to single life as a senior citizen, the rapid rise in divorce rates amongst Baby Boomers has exacerbated the issue. That number becomes even more staggering when including those 50 years of age or older. 

Despite the decline in divorce rates overall, divorce rates amongst those 50 years of age and older has doubled and has tripled for couples 65 years of age and older. Numerous researchers have speculated as to the cause of this increase, but it is difficult to pinpoint the main contributing factor.  A family lawyer from New York once crassly speculated that sex was a huge contributing factor, with men over the age of 50 using Viagra and thus more capable of satisfying younger women. NY Times – Divorce After 50 Grows More Common;. Some researchers have pointed to other factors including increased life expectancy, financial autonomy for women who work as compared to previous generations, changing priorities, empty-nest syndrome, or simply growing apart from one another. Forbes – How Divorcing Later in Life Can Affect Your Retirement PlansUS News – How Gray Divorce Affects Your Health. Whatever the reasons, given that Baby Boomers (at least for now) constitute the largest living adult generation in America, the rapid rise in divorce in this age group is alarming and a great cause for concern.

For me, this is a personal issue.  At the time of their divorce, my parents were married for 32 years and dated for 6 years prior to that time.  My brother was 24-years-old and serving in the Peace Corp overseas.  I was finishing my last semester in college abroad in Spain.  Although my mother was highly educated with a Master’s Degree, she had been a stay-at-home mom, out of the workforce for over 20 years, and nearing 50 years old.  My father had his own lucrative CPA practice making over $400,000.00 per year. After paying for years of private school tuition, elite and club soccer dues, equipment, and travel expenses, cars for my brother and me, and college tuition, my parents’ estate consisted mostly of their marital residence (which, of course, had a mortgage) and my father’s CPA practice.  Much to my mother’s dismay, the value of my father’s CPA practice would be greatly discounted for personal goodwill (the value attributable to my father’s efforts and services as an individual CPA), an asset that is simply not divisible in Texas.  Coupled with the fact that there is no alimony in the State of Texas, her post-divorce financial future was bleak.

My family’s story (which I will further detail in future postings) is not meant to be a forecast for all gray divorces.  I have been witness to numerous divorces involving older couples who have reached amicable settlements providing financial security for both spouses following divorce. However, rising interest rates, inflation, and a post-COVID economy have decreased the ability of these couples to financially sustain two households post-marriage – at the very least, in a manner comparable to pre-divorce standards.

Since COVID-19, I have seen more and more gray divorces come across my desk.  Economic factors and opposing views on vaccinations, mask policies, and politics have led to greater marital discord among older married couples who no longer have minor children at home to serve as buffers.  The pandemic also reignited feelings of “life is too short”, with warring or even drifting spouses feeling a need to escape and start fresh.  Still too, lockdowns, unfortunately, created fertile ground for emotional, physical, and psychological abuse.  

But, why does all of this matter?

For one, the economic impact of this growing number of split households in the most populated age group in America on the extended family and tax-payers as a whole.  Divorce at a more advanced age greatly increases the risk of poverty.  According to Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin, sociologists at Bowling Green State University, older divorced couples have only 20 percent as much wealth as older married couples.  Divorce also tends to have a greater impact on older women in particular.  Divorced women 65 years of age and older are 80 percent more likely to be impoverished than their male counterparts.  Unsurprisingly, loneliness is also epidemic amongst those who fall victim to the gray divorce.  Divorce at any age brings about changes in friendships, social circles, and even certain familial relationships; however, the loss of such social connections is even more devastating amongst those 65 years of age or older.  Typically, as people age, their social network begins to shrink due to children leaving home, relocation or death of family members and friends. Coupled with increased financial difficulties, many rely on adult children to shoulder this burden.

A gray divorce is starkly different from a divorce in your twenties and thirties where the parties have countless years ahead to work and save for their future. Older adults need a significantly greater share of the household income and resources.  Per a 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, a single person 65 years of age or older needs 79 percent of the income of a two-person household (which would explain the uptick in couples getting divorced to collect more social security). https://www.goa.gov/assets/670/660202.pdf.  Thus, financial planning and strategizing in a gray divorce is key.  

If you read my previous blog post, you should now understand the pitfalls associated with focusing too much on maintaining the marital residence following a divorce.  That same analysis is perhaps even more significant when dealing with a gray divorce.  The marital residence often carries with it many memories that the non-monied spouse, in particular, holds in high regard.   It was where the children grew up, where they envisioned their grandkids playing in the future.  Still further, the marital residence represents a lifestyle which that spouse fears he or she will not be able to replicate in the future.  Given these emotional entanglements, it is essential to determine at the outset of the case whether keeping the marital residence is a financially viable option.  For those experiencing a gray divorce, child support will not be a consideration.  Therefore, other forms of financial liquidity must be taken into consideration and must be sufficient to not only pay for the mortgage, taxes, insurance, maintenance, and repairs to the residence, but also to pay for other types of living expenses.  Given the infrequency of awards of spousal maintenance and lack of alimony in Texas, great focus and attention must be given to the particular assets and debts capable of being divided by the Court.

One often overlooked expense is medical costs.  My own practice has seen a rapid rise in divorce amongst the 57 to 62 year old age group.  These are typically traditional families, with women primarily having stayed at home to raise the kids and maintain the house.  More often than not, these women have not been in the workforce for nearly 15 to 20 years.  Given their advancing ages, job prospects are very limited and many do not provide any benefits.  As Medicare is not yet available, marketplace insurance or COBRA are their only options, which are either extremely costly or deficient.  Therefore, any divorce settlement or proposed division should take this cost and accessibility into consideration.

While it is important to ensure liquidity (assets that can be immediately accessed and used), it is equally as important to have assets which have long-term payout and growth potential. Finding the right mix of assets to best suit the needs of a particular client is a form of art and must be analyzed on a case by case basis to determine what fits that client’s short term and long term needs.  A spouse may walk away with more than enough assets to live on for the entirety of his or her life, but poor financial decisions can change that very quickly. If a spouse has not managed money, investments, or has never paid a bill in his or her adult life, it is imperative that person seek advice from a financial advisor. A financial advisor can help ensure that what is received in a divorce is spent wisely and invested properly for financial stability moving forward.  

Fortunately, financial planning and assistance is not exclusive to the “haves” and “have-a lots”.  My mother is a prime example.  In spite of the trauma she endured – the end of a marriage and relationship that spanned over half her life at that time and my brother’s suicide – she pulled herself up by her bootstraps and obtained a job at a real estate company in North Carolina and taught three different classes at the community college. Further, despite her pittance of a divorce settlement, she invested wisely and sought the assistance of a financial advisor to whom she had been referred by her Church.  The financial planner helped her figure out a budget and the amount of cash flow she would need in a given month to supplement any income she earned following her divorce.  He also encouraged her to place a significant sum of her money in a Certificate of Deposit (CD).  Despite her skepticism, my mother heeded his advice.  As a result, the CD grew roughly 30% over the 5 years that the money was on deposit and provided my mother with financial security in the future that she would not have had otherwise. 

My anecdotal account of my mother’s post-divorce life is not meant to cast dispersions upon my father, who I adore and respect, but to provide insight and guidance for those who are or will soon be experiencing the throes of a gray divorce. Preparation for the financial realities of a divorce is essential for any potential litigant, but especially those of a more advanced age.  Having the right team in place to guide you and your family through this life transition and trauma both during and after litigation is vital to securing a sustainable and fruitful post-marriage future.