Just as the baby boomer generation has challenged social and cultural norms during previous decades of their lives, this group of 70+ million Americans is now redefining expectations of middle-aged and "senior" life. For personal fulfillment or economic necessity, they are changing careers mid-life or plan to work well past the standard retirement age of 65. Once again they are breaking the proverbial "glass ceiling." To maintain their youthful appearance, baby boomers have embraced an arsenal of anti-aging weapons from Pilates, yoga, meditation and elliptical training to the Mediterranean diet and the latest cosmetic surgery procedures. And increasingly for many baby boomers, a divorce after 20, 30 or more years of marriage is a central element of their third-act plans.
Statistics from the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University show that despite the overall divorce rate in the U.S. dropping over the last 20 years, the divorce rate among people age 50 and over has doubled. For a generation raised on the principle of having it all, the promise of "until death do us part" has changed to "until the kids are grown" or "until I find out what really makes me happy."
The phenomenon even has a name: grey divorce.
In my practice as a family law attorney in Los Angeles, baby boomers now make up a larger percent of my clients. I see interesting differences between the grey divorce and when spouses divorce under the age of 50.
In general, if boomer couples have children, they are high-schoolers, college-age or grown. This means there's not as much conflict and fighting over custody and child support as when young children are involved. Usually grey divorce parents have already devised a parenting plan, which is in large part dictated by their children. The reality is that teenagers vote with their "feet." If they don't want to go to a parent's home, they simply won't go.
Even in the midst of today's economic meltdown, boomers may be in a better financial position to get divorced than younger couples who can't afford the cost of living separately or even the expense of the divorce itself.
However with more assets to divide, divorcing boomers potentially have more to fight about when it comes to a property settlement and spousal support. Financial settlements take on heightened importance when the supported spouse has limited earning power after being out of the workforce for years or the supporting spouse has fewer years to work. Both recognize that whatever they take away from the marriage may have to see them through their impending "senior" years. Some may have significant savings that they are eager to use on pursuing their idea of happiness or self-fulfillment - whether that means that long-awaited tummy tuck or a safari to Africa.
I recommend that supported spouses negotiate for a well-rounded portfolio of assets that would include a residence, retirement and non-retirement financial accounts. I also focus on negotiating for support beyond the other spouse reaching the age of retirement. In addition, I counsel clients on the importance of saving a portion of their support. For the supporting spouse, we try to limit or reduce the amount and length of support. For example, if they pay higher support for a shorter time, this may free them up in later life.
While you often hear divorcing boomers say that they have simply grown apart from their spouse and no longer have anything in common to keep them together, acts of infidelity are also a prime cause of splits among this group. When a long marriage ends because of one partner's cheating, the sense of betrayal and pain for the aggrieved partner is particularly profound. They feel as though their whole world has been destroyed and often their sense of self-esteem is crushed. It takes great sensitivity and compassion to help these clients work through the most difficult time in their lives and emerge from their divorce prepared for the future.
I encourage them to work on reframing their thinking. Rather than focusing on the past and their loss, the divorce gives them an opportunity to create a new life and reclaim the happiness they deserve.
With the average life expectancy in the U.S. nearing 80 years and boomers inclined to keep pursuing their definition of personal happiness for every one of those years, I'll wager that we'll continue to see a boom in grey divorce for some time to come.