Op-ed: Think you know gray divorce? You have no idea

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It was once that when you spoke of marriage and “golden years,” a picture would come to mind. Get married, work hard, buy a house, have children and retire surrounded by family and some grandchildren.

Divorce was a hush-hush topic and a rare occurrence. However, as the world has changed, the definition of marriage, family, and divorce have all morphed.

Millennials and Gen Xers view the experience differently than earlier generations, and divorce is no longer as taboo.

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While every divorcing couple has legal and logistical issues to weigh, for those facing a divorce later in life, commonly referred to as a “gray” divorce, there are even more questions, such as supporting older children, addressing retirement and reestablishing a plan for the future.

With divorce rates among those age 65 and above reaching record highs, here are some questions to ask yourself should you find yourself among their ranks.

What if I’m navigating college expenses?

Gray divorce is often associated with retirees or empty nesters, but with the shift in the definition of family, and the fact that couples are increasingly marrying later in life, many people are building families well into their 40s and 50s.

As a result, older divorcing couples today may have more complex family and financial responsibilities and, as a result, different concerns than their counterparts who married earlier in life.

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College education creates different challenges for later-in-life family builders. The cost of college education may be a major factor in determining your divorce settlement. To negotiate these terms, be sure you’re on the same page about what secondary education may include, timelines and expenses.

While lots of parents consider the distance from home, the program of study and how the school will help develop their child, divorcing parents must dive deeper. Can they study abroad? Can they study abroad?

For parents who thought they would retire in their late 50s or early 60s, thoughts about funding education — especially if there are multiple children in the home when divorce occurs — drift to cost, making the target age for retirement later and later.

How can gray divorce affect my retirement?

Divorcing later in life can create financial aftershocks for couples. You may be navigating the complexity of dividing retirement plans, pensions, and other benefits. Pair that with the shift in potential retirement age if you’re funding college education, and your eyes may cross with all you’re processing.

Will I have enough to retire if I stayed home or worked part-time? If you were a stay-at-home parent (or worked non-traditional jobs such as freelancing, consulting or multiple part-time positions), your nest egg might be a concern.

While you are likely to get a portion of your spouse’s retirement account, your own retirement account may be less robust than you planned. If you have been out of full-time employment for some time, you may find that your starting salary is lower than you expected. This, combined with increased budget costs, might limit your ability to grow a retirement account.

Could the economy affect my divorce and retirement?

No matter your marital status, the economy can affect your retirement — but it’s especially a concern for divorcing couples. Inflation and other economic factors can affect the value of your retirement savings as well as the cost of living. In many divorces, the main issue is how to divide assets. Retirement accounts and homes are often amongst the largest assets of a couple. This can be a good thing in booming economies. However, it can also lead to difficult negotiation when economies are unstable. With rising inflation, mortgage rates skyrocketing, and roller-coaster retirement accounts, it can make those divorcing later in life stressed about how they might afford retirement.

What if I started taking early retirement benefits?

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While the government mandate for retirement is age 67, you can start taking early retirement withdrawals at 62. The court may not consider you to be retired if you are 62. You have an even wider gap to overcome. — you have an even wider gap to overcome.

If you or your spouse is enrolled in a pension plan, this can have significant impact when divorcing.

Some plans are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, known as ERISA, and can be protected, while others are not. Also, depending on the type of pension, if it’s in pay status, it can be considered income to you instead of an asset to divide, which can affect claims of alimony or child support.

Receipt of government benefits can be helpful, though. Many spouses are unaware that they can receive Social Security benefits based on their spouse’s employment history and not only their own. Are you part of a blended family or a mixed-race family? Have you got children at home that are of a very different age? These questions may not have been asked in gray divorces from the past, but are common today. If you are the less-monied spouse then accessing immediate cash is a top priority. If you are the wealthy spouse, you may be wondering what percentage of your income you will share with the other spouse and how soon you can recover it. Focusing on the future will help you make good choices. Are you close to retiring? Do you expect to receive an inheritance from family members? What assets can be acquired now to ensure your future security? How does my divorce process look?

In every divorce, time and cost of a trial are major concerns. If you and your soon-to-be ex have an amicable relationship, mediation may be a good option.

Mediation allows parties to talk through issues and create an agreement that meets everyone’s needs. You can also control the costs and timelines of your divorce. They can help you understand the details of your case, plan ahead and avoid any hidden costs.