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Is a Gray Divorce Inevitable? 5 Steps Women Should Take

Older women tend to be at a disadvantage in a breakup

illustration of paper cut-out hands holding together red slivers of a paper heart on a gray background
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When the writing is on the wall older women, in particular, need to be smart and prepare for a gray divorce. After all, women are more likely than recently divorced men to suffer as a result of a breakup. According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University, the standard of living for women who divorce after the age of 50 declines on average by 45 percent. For men, it’s a 21 percent decline. ​

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“The person who is disadvantaged in a divorce is the person who is not the breadwinner,” says Chris Manske, president of Manske Wealth Management. “Most of the couples that are in their 50s and 60s the man is still predominantly the breadwinner. This puts women at a disadvantage in divorce.” ​

Divorce can happen at any age. Instead of being ashamed or paralyzed with fear women can take steps to prepare, which include:

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1. Think about your needs and worry about the bank accounts later 

Divorce can be bitter and acrimonious, which is why so many women worry about finding out where all the money and assets are before they sign a divorce decree. They want to make sure they get their fair share and it’s split down the middle. But even more important in the early stage of a breakup is figuring out your post-divorce requirements so you can survive and thrive as a divorcée. “A lot of people think, 'I have to find out where all our money is, I need to know where the assets are,' but that’s a step in the wrong direction because it’s limiting,” says Manske. “If she's thinking about where everything is, she's not thinking about her requirements.” Instead of leading with where the assets are, Manske says to consider what you need to be comfortable and have a sustainable life. Once you know that, it’s easier to figure out the support and assets worth fighting for. 

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2. Find an emotional soundboard 

Divorces happen to nearly half of U.S. adult couples, which means women no longer have to suffer in silence. That doesn’t mean you have to tell the world about your divorce, but you should have close family and friends you can vent to, bounce ideas off of and otherwise seek comfort. If your mental health isn’t in check it will be hard to approach the divorce with a clear head, which could lead to bad financial decisions. “I highly recommend going for professional counseling or having a family member serving in that capacity,” says Jody D’agostini, a certified financial planner at Equitable Advisors. “If there are kids involved, make sure there is similar support for them. They are going through this as well.” ​

3. Seek assets that make money rather than cost money 

Manske advises to label assets in two buckets — those that make money and those that cost money. An investment account makes you money, a home or car costs you money in maintenance, repairs, insurance and other associated expenses. If you aren’t the breadwinner, or your income is lower than your soon-to-be-ex, focus more on the assets that generate money instead of the ones that require outlays. That’s particularly true if you aren’t receiving alimony or child support from your spouse. “You can have the house but I’ll keep stocks and bonds is not going to work because the house is a drain on whoever keeps it, but stocks and bonds provide interest and dividends for whoever keeps them,” says Manske. “Most of the time the man is the breadwinner so the majority of the money-creating assets should go to her.”​

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4. Revisit your estate planning 

For older couples getting divorced, it’s important to revisit your estate planning to reflect your newly single status. That includes setting up a trust to name a health care power of attorney, redesignating beneficiaries on investment and insurance accounts, and updating your will. You don’t want your ex-husband or partner getting your retirement savings in the event of your death because you never made these changes. D’agostini says to also create a budget based on your marital lifestyle, your sources of income and needs. “Once the divorce is over what does your budget look like,” she says. “You have to make sure you have the money you need.”​

5. Prepare for a marathon, not a sprint 

The breakup may seem like it came out of nowhere, but the process to finalize a divorce can take a long time. That could weigh on you, weaken your resolve and result in you agreeing to less than you deserve. But if you mentally prepare for the long slough of it, you will be more willing to dig your heels in and get what you need and deserve. “A divorce isn’t instant. You don’t snap your fingers and it’s done,” says Manske. “This is not a matter of weeks, more like a year plus. Be mentally ready for a marathon so you can go through this with resilience.” 

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