My Great Aunt Gert was widowed after being happily married to the same husband – my Great Uncle Bob – for more than 50 years. She remarried at age 83 to a man, my Great Uncle John, who was 85. They had 10 good years together before he died at the ripe old age of 95. Their “gray marriage” was a rarity 30 years ago.
So was gray divorce – but it’s on the rise today. Not everyone has the happy ending Gert had. She had one long, happy marriage followed by another.
In the last five years, I have seen more long-term marriages end than ever before. It’s actually a global phenomenon. Most divorces still happen to couples in their 30s and 40s, but more couples in their 50s and 60s – who have been married for 25 years and up – are deciding to split these days.
Their concerns are different than younger couples who divorce. In a more typical divorce, the partners are concerned with the young kids – assuming there are any – being OK. In gray divorce, partners have often accumulated more substantial assets, so there’s more to be divided. There are older kids, possibly grandchildren. There are more stakeholders.
Sometimes, it’s becoming an empty nester that’s the impetus for the split. The kids are 18 or over and gone. And the couple find they’ve grown apart. Sometimes it’s the children who – maybe even unwittingly – have kept their parents together.
No matter what age the kids are, they still need to be taken into consideration. If they’re in college, the soon-to-be-exes must figure out if college tuition and expenses will be split and if so, how. When the grown children get married, will Mom and Dad still fund the wedding or a portion of it? How?
If there are grandchildren, the uncoupling couple may be paying for private school tuition, summer camps, music lessons. Will Grandma and Grandpa keep paying for those things? And if so, how will those expenses be paid?
In gray divorces, there can be a lot of intertwined interests that have to be unraveled and divided. Vacation homes. Rental property. A family business. Family foundations. I know former couples who continue to operate as business partners or jointly oversee a foundation and its assets. Still others continue to share vacation homes. Just not at the same time – unless it’s an unusually amicable split.
For anyone considering getting out of a long-term marriage, here are a few points to keep in mind.
Divide and conquer
Have you and your soon-to-be-ex shared the same financial planner and estate planning attorney? Probably. Now, you each must have your own set of advisers. It’s cleaner and easier for one spouse to stick with the existing advisors – and for one spouse to get new ones. Plus, ethically speaking an adviser can’t serve each of you.
So, maybe Spouse A keeps the existing attorney and finds a new financial planner, while Spouse B keeps the existing financial planner and finds a new attorney. Each person gets to keep one provider who has the historical perspective. Or maybe one of you wants a fresh start all around, and that works too.
Consolidate and conquer
If the couple are retired, they have likely already consolidated their nest egg, which makes divorce and splitting up assets easier. If they haven’t done this yet, doing so will again make it easier. Move it all over to one financial institution. That makes it a lot easier to track and a lot less stressful.
If the couple haven’t done that yet, it can be part of the negotiations. For smaller accounts – however you determine “smaller” – close them out and move them to bigger accounts.
When the daughter (or son) says ‘I do’
Who will pay for the wedding(s) of your child or children? That’s often part of divorce negotiations.
It’s cleaner to get this settled at the time of the uncoupling, rather than waiting until much later.
Any previous estate planning documents that left everything to the surviving spouse may need to be updated with a new beneficiary or beneficiaries. If I’m the adult child of divorcing parents, it’s clear to me that whatever my inheritance originally was going to be, it may now be diluted. Especially if I have siblings.
Talk to your adult child or children about any provisions you’re making. Let them know their needs and interests are being factored in to the agreement.
Who has the power?
Splitting spouses were probably each other’s power of attorney and healthcare power of attorney. Now what? The responsibility – for one or both parents – may now go to an adult child. These are conversations you’ll need to have at the time of the split.
Who has the (Social) Security?
There is a maze of laws surrounding Social Security (yes, you can collect Social Security from an ex-spouse) and remarriage. Make sure you know them. For example, your 60th birthday is crucial. Get married one day before you turn 60, and you could lose benefits you were entitled to – or may have even already been receiving.
Saying ‘I do’ (again)
If you get remarried, you will want prenups. A prenup gives you – and your adult children and grandchildren – some measure of security. It also reduces any risk of – it must be said – fraud. You’ll also want to update any health insurance and life insurance policies. You may again need to update your power of attorney and healthcare power of attorney – just as you did when you divorced, this time appointing your new spouse.
When you get married, there are a lot of inherent and invisible rights. And responsibilities. You may want to spell out – legally – that your children are not financially responsible for their stepmother or stepfather, should she or he require long-term hospitalization or in-home healthcare. This is where estate planning and financial planning come into play, as well.
Great Aunt Gert, who died in 2018, got lucky. Don’t leave your nest egg or your children’s and grandchildren’s futures to fate. Plan ahead, and have peace of mind.
Tonya Graser Smith is a Board Certified Specialist in Family Law, licensed North Carolina attorney and founder of GraserSmith, PLLC, in Charlotte, N.C. She focuses her practice on divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, equitable distribution, prenuptial agreements and other family law matters.
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