“Gray divorce” — the unfortunately named term for divorce after age 50 — is increasing among baby boomers. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, the divorce rate has more than doubled for people over 50 since the 1990s. The pandemic has seemingly accelerated this number, too. I’m a lawyer by trade, and all the family law attorneys I know have been absolutely swamped with divorce cases since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown.
My parents divorced in their 50s. It wasn’t an amicable divorce; they couldn’t be in the same room together. My father had a heart attack just before they separated and had been showing signs of declining mental health and alcohol abuse. I confess that I was worried about what would happen if he had another major health event — who would take care of him? I never addressed that with my parents, although I wish I had. I was in my early 20s and at the start of my career, and I felt burdened by those fears.
Ultimately, it was my mom, not my dad, who got sick. One of the first things she said when she found out she’d be having brain surgery was, “Don’t call your father.” She didn’t want him to show up and upset her even more than she already was. Despite his issues and their estrangement, he was still my dad, and it was hard to suddenly feel like I had no parents at all. Negotiating a parent’s brain cancer diagnosis and becoming her main caregiver is a major life event for anyone, especially a young caregiver. I felt the lack of elders I could lean on for guidance and help every step of the way.
The financial impact of late-in-life divorce
When a divorce occurs, it can be a path to a better life for all involved. But if you are planning to dissolve your marriage or have recently divorced — whether you have children or not — it is important to include your caregiving plan in the process.
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Divorce can be financially draining, and later-in-life divorces more often affect women’s finances than men’s. In addition to depressed earnings from time spent out of the workforce to raise children or provide care, women find themselves more financially vulnerable post-divorce and more likely to serve as caregivers again in the future. Still, for partners of all genders, it’s important to consider the longer-term financial outlook, not just the financial situation you’re in when you are actually dissolving the marriage. You and your spouse will be negotiating the division of assets and liabilities and the responsibilities regarding spousal support. How one of you will live if the other gets sick or passes away should also be part of this conversation.
Use your inventory of assets and liabilities to determine where you’ll need to make changes. You may end up removing your spouse from beneficiary designations on all your accounts. (Some states allow for the automatic removal of an ex as a beneficiary on certain accounts, but it’s better to be proactive.) You should have alternative beneficiaries that you move up in priority to inherit your assets. Your divorce agreement may also include purchasing life insurance or maintaining a trust or beneficiary designations for one another.
Create or update your estate plan as soon as possible. Have your estate planning attorney review your marital agreement; he or she will have suggestions about how to align your estate plan with your divorce obligations. If you and your ex are co-parenting children, your estate plan should address who their guardians will be if both biological parents pass away and who will manage any inheritance if you do not want your ex-spouse handling assets you may leave to your children.
Review and rethink care plans
Map out your life care plan as well. This means naming health care proxies or surrogates (who will take care of your medical affairs if you’re in need of caregiving), designating a financial power of attorney (who will take care of your finances and legal affairs) and — if your divorce was particularly acrimonious — appointing pre-need guardians for yourself if you’re incapacitated. Life care planning has the dual benefit of preventing your ex from gaining control of your life when you’re unable to speak for yourself and making sure you’ve thought about and informed the people in your life of who will be responsible if the time comes that you need help.
Think deeply about how your divorce will affect your children and extended family if you need caregiving. As a caregiver, I experienced the familiar feeling of a child put in the middle of a fight by her parents. Once my father eventually found out about my mother’s cancer, he reached out to me and asked to see her. She said no. He wrote her a goodbye letter, which I had to read to her because her vision was blurry. To this day, I consider it one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. At a minimum, agree between yourselves what level of contact you can manage and, if you share children and loved ones, understand that your lives will intersect along the way. While your marriage may not last, the connections will, so plan accordingly.
Also, talk to your shared children about what the expectations will be for them. If they are young or building their own lives, bring other family or friends in as your community and care partners until the time your kids can take caregiving on themselves. Even if you don’t have people you feel you can rely on, there are steps you can take on your own for planning to age.