The Rise in Late-Life Divorces and Resulting Financial Impact by Sandi Perez, CPA/ABV/CFF, CFE
Posted on May 10, 2021
The recent announcement that billionaire couple Bill and Melinda Gates are ending their nearly three-decade marriage highlights the continuing rise in late-life divorces at a time when the national divorce rate among all age groups is declining. With these so-called graying divorces
comes an assortment of unique challenges related to divvying up assets, including often-sizable investments and retirement plans. Moreover, by this stage in a marriage, much of an individual’s business and personal matters are so closely intertwined that untangling them can become a difficult process. This is especially true when considering the ease with which one may comingle and hide assets from a soon-to-be ex-spouse.
In many ways, the issues facing today’s late-life divorcees are very similar to those experienced by their younger counterparts. However, a couple’s age, health and even their grown children can negatively influence the divorce process and the way in which each spouse emerges from the dissolution of the marriage. To protect the interests of both parties and ensure each leaves the marriage with their fair share of assets, couples should consider engaging professional counsel, including divorce attorneys, trust and wills attorneys and forensic accountants, to address the following issues specific to late-life divorces.
Retirement and Estate Plans
A harsh reality of late-life divorces is that each spouse has less time to recover financially. Although it is not uncommon for one or both spouses to continue working past the age of retirement, a divorce may accelerate their individual desires to slow down, close up shop and enjoy their golden years. Under these circumstances, each party’s future income and lifestyles will be impacted significantly with both sharing Social Security, retirement assets and savings separately. Both parties must have a clear understanding of how they originally established their retirement and benefits plans and the tax consequences of keeping, selling or dividing those assets. Legal and financial professionals should be engaged early to analyze each document carefully and determine the impact of distribution under various scenarios.
Similarly, older couples headed for divorce should first dust off their wills and estate plans and ensure their named beneficiaries accurately reflect their current wishes. It is important that their individual divorce attorney work with their trust and estate lawyers at the very beginning of the process, especially if the division of assets will result in a material changes to their wills. Often, these changes do not occur until after the divorce is finalized and assets are distributed. However, due to the advanced age of a late-life divorcee, waiting to alter wills may not be the most prudent option.
Due to the advancing age of late-life divorcees, there is a greater likelihood that one or both spouses will have health issues. The divorce process can exasperate these medical matters and put additional stress on already fragile physical and emotional states. In these situations, it is critical that both parties to divorce disclose any illnesses to their legal and financial counsel to help ensure the final divorce agreement considers their separate needs for ongoing medical care. It is often recommended that individuals with a serious illness push for bifurcation, in which the court dissolves the marriage but leaves the financial aspects of the divorce open for determination at a later date.
Unfortunately, late-life divorces can be negatively impacted by adult children who have sided with one parent over the other. In these cases, the children’s agenda can drive the direction of the divorce negotiations and lead to complications during the settlement process.
With an increase in gray divorces comes an equally growing rate of later-life remarriages with the added complications of alimony, inheritances, retirement savings and government benefits from prior marriages. Prudent couples should consider prenuptial agreements as a priority on their wedding planning lists to protect themselves and their heirs in case those marriages end in divorce or a new spouse passes away unexpectedly. Although prenups are not immune from attack and interpretation, they do help to ensure that individuals enter a new marriage with their eyes wide open and a full understanding of their soon-to-be spouse’s assets, liabilities and responsibilities. Moreover, these open and honest discussions can help couples pave a smooth path toward happily-ever after.
The Family Law Services practice of Berkowitz Pollack Brant has extensive experience working with families, attorneys and the courts to simplify complex financial information prior to, during and after divorce. Its team of professionals helps to uncover hidden facts, value assets, develop case strategy and provide credible and reliable expert testimony at mediations, hearings and trials.