I’m rarely surprised to hear about a couple calling it quits, but when I read the news of Bill and Melinda Gates’ divorce, it caught me off guard. I imagine many power couples have arrangements where they discretely lead separate lives rather than formally end their marriages.
As a family law lawyer who’s been practising for many years, I shouldn’t be surprised. In fact, the Gates represent a broader trend we’re seeing in family law — a rise in divorce rates among Baby Boomers.
While fewer couples from younger generations are getting divorced, data from the Pew Research Center shows that divorce rates for adults aged 50 and older have roughly doubled in the last 20 years.
What’s behind the trend?
The reasons for ending a marriage are as unique as the couples themselves. People who get together when they’re young experience a lot of change over the years. In some cases, one person is on a growth path, but the other wants to keep the status quo.
Sometimes, there is a specific issue — an affair or addiction — that prompts one partner to pull the plug. More often, one or both spouses are making a choice “to change course for the time they have left,” writes psychologist John Duffy in a recent CNN column.
“And recognizing that life is short and precious, one or both partners choose what they feel is the most fulfilling path. They tend to believe that, if a marriage is not working for them, it really isn't working for their spouse either. So, they afford themselves the space to gain, or regain, happiness and fulfilment,” Duffy says.
Mind your assets and liabilities
The financial implications of ending a marriage later in life can have a significant impact on both spouses for the rest of their lives.
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Those who have been together for decades may have accumulated a bounty of assets — the matrimonial home, pensions, retirement savings, businesses, investments and properties — that they will need to divide. Sometimes, couples confront uncomfortable truths about their spouse, such as learning they have run up enormous debts that must be addressed during their divorce. While you may not be responsible for debt incurred by your partner, it could have a devastating effect on your lifestyle once your divorce is finalized.
The calculation of each spouse’s assets and liabilities — less anything they brought into the marriage that hasn’t been comingled, such as an inheritance or income property — is known as the equalization of net family property.
When divorce happens as one or both spouses approach retirement, and after, it can involve a transition to a much different lifestyle. Some couples end up selling the family home and moving to a smaller house or condo. Another issue to consider in retirement is that income tends to go down, which has a ripple effect on spousal support.
Something I see commonly with older female clients is a lack of knowledge and involvement in the family finances. They stayed at home to raise children and, almost by default, the breadwinner partner took over responsibility for managing household finances. Interestingly, a recent study shows that most men are disappointed when their wives don’t participate in the family’s financial decisions.
When they don’t, it can leave women in a vulnerable position. Frequently in family law cases, we see spouses trying to take advantage of their partner’s ignorance by hiding assets so they can reduce the amount of spousal support they pay. It’s important for women in this situation to get legal advice so they clearly understand their legal rights.
Another scenario that can complicate grey divorce is when one partner has a side hustle business that has grown into a successful venture over the years. Although their spouse was never involved in any aspect of the business, it becomes part of the net family property for equalization.
Next time, a prenup
No one goes into a marriage or committed relationship thinking it will end, but the data doesn’t lie: Roughly 40 per cent of marriages end in divorce, so it makes sense to keep that in mind.
A smart move for couples on their first or subsequent marriage is to have a marriage contract. We’re seeing a marked increase in marriage contracts and cohabitation agreements among older couples, especially those who have adult children and want to ensure their inheritance is protected. I’m a big advocate for these types of domestic contracts for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they make the process of uncoupling much smoother should a couple decide to split.
Ending a marriage at any point is a stressful experience, but for couples in their 50s and older, there are added layers of complications. If you’re considering a divorce and would like to schedule a consultation to talk about your options, book a discovery call with me here.