Senior Splits: Gray Divorces Grow More Pervasive
Apparently, senior divorce is a real thing as baby boomers – 77 million strong – head into their mid-50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, with more couples deciding to split up near or in retirement.
The issue drew widespread media attention after Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, divorced MacKenzie Bezos in 2019, with Ms. Bezos receiving $39.7 billion once the couple officially divorced. The Bezos are hardly alone – according to government data, the rate of divorce over 50-years-of-age has doubled in the past two decades.
“Financially, senior divorce is often crippling,” says Joe Hoelscher, managing attorney at Hoelscher Gebbia Cepeda PLLC, in San Antonio, Tx.
Even where the divorcing couple remains financially stable, they'll often deplete assets they wanted to leave to others, such as college funds, homesteads, or heirlooms.
“The impact depends, in part, on whether the couple has become eligible to withdraw assets from their retirement planning vehicles (IRAs or 401(k)s) without penalty,” Hoelscher says. “When a couple has multiple accounts of different value, then the only way to achieve parity in distributing those assets can be early withdrawal, causing significant tax penalties.”
Another major change is the loss of efficiency in sharing expenses. “Most couples calculate their retirement needs on the assumption that they will continue sharing a single household, car, insurance, groceries, utilities, vacations – things like that,” Hoelscher adds. “Those costs roughly double if both former spouses maintain their previous lifestyle.”
Those couples with smaller estates can be hit hard just by legal fees, as well.
“Older couples tend to have more complicated marital estates involving retirement accounts, life insurance, real estate, investments, business interests, and personal property of significant value (i.e., art, antiques, and jewelry),” he adds. “Fighting over these assets, which often have a lifetime of sentimental meaning built into them, can mean huge legal bills. In my experience, senior divorces cost far more than divorces of younger couples, even though divorces earlier in a marriage will include child custody battles. We frequently see total legal bills for gray divorces nearing six figures.”
Seniors also face disadvantages in having to adapt in the face of financial setbacks from divorce, too. “Health issues, time out of the workforce, and discrimination are all possible limits on wage-earning, but so is the draining impact of changing long-established life patterns and social support networks,” Hoelscher notes.
The best way to limit the financial damage is to have an amicable divorce, he says.
“The sense of betrayal when a long-time spouse files for divorce can be strong,” Hoelscher says. “Couples need to find a way to be reasonable and understand that both sides will need to compromise. Both people will have to create new lives for themselves. The sooner they can start working on that, the better. So, as hard as it is, they need to let go of the past as soon as possible.”
One way to start that process is by seeking quick agreement on assets meant for others.
“For example, if they've set up a tax-free 529 college savings account for a grandchild, agreeing to leave it out of the divorce can both reduce the number of assets lawyers can fight over while establishing a precedent of mutual agreement and trust, ”Hoelscher adds. “Similarly, resolving the division of personal property through the lens of who will inherit those items can draw some of the sting of having to get used to an unfamiliar bedroom set.”
“Early agreement on items of deep emotional value often makes bigger financial questions easier.”