Often active, vital members of the community, senior citizens today are doing things that seniors from previous generations never thought about. So, it should be no surprise that in addition to being out on hiking trails or enrolled in college classes, more seniors are ending up in divorce court – calling it quits even after 40, 50 or more years as a couple.
“…going through an elder divorce can be like walking through a mine field…”
Kathleen Vetrano of Wayne is a nationally known divorce and family law attorney and the chair of the American Bar Association’s older law committee. Recently quoted in an article on the subject in Newsweek magazine, Vetrano says she has seen the trend of divorce among senior citizens nationwide as well as in her own practice. For the past eight years, Vetrano has given presentations on elder divorce for different law associations across the country. She said she named the presentation “Approaching the Golden Years with No Band of Gold.”
There are many different issues involved with elder divorce and lawyers must understand them so they can meet the needs of their clients. I’ve been to Tampa, Atlanta, New York and other cities presenting the program, and there is a real demand for the subject matter. It seems I’m always getting requests to do this, and it still amazes me,” Vetrano said.
Some of the issues involved with divorces among senior citizens are retirement and Social Security benefits, as well as questions about jointly held assets and long-term care. And although children of divorcing seniors are generally adults themselves, the issue of breaking up a family can still be devastating.
“Questions like ‘do the alimony payments stop when a person retires?’ come up, or, ‘what kind of lifestyle should she expect after divorce when her ex-spouse retires?’ There are questions about whether or not health benefits are assets or if term life insurance should be sold to use as an asset,” Vetrano said.
The answers will vary depending on the couple and the situation but unless the couple has had a long history of serious problems, the adult children’s reaction to their parent’s divorce is the same as that of younger children. As a matter of fact, these “adult children of divorce” often balk at the idea of their parents discussing their divorce openly. Although she has several elderly divorce clients in Chester County, Vetrano, who has a practice in King of Prussia, said none were willing to be interviewed about their family’s divorce for this article.
“I had a client in her 80’s who was willing to talk about her divorce and was even interviewed for the Newsweek article; but as soon as her children heard, they were very upset. It ended up that her identity was not disclosed for that article either.” Vetrano said.
Patricia Brennan, who practices family law, estate planning and mediation in West Chester, said she also has clients who have gone through divorce after years of marriage, but none were comfortable with the idea of being interviewed on the subject. One couple, she said, had been married for 40 years and realized that they just didn’t have anything in common and didn’t even enjoy each other’s company after he retired and their children were grown and out of the house.
“He traveled a lot for his job and she stayed at home.”
“Once it was just the two of them, they found that they really weren’t happy with each other. Perhaps if they were older, they might have tried to stick it out, but they realized they could still have many years together.” Brennan said.
In fact, the increase in life expectancy is sited as a major reason why seniors decide to split, Vetrano said.
Pointing to her own grandparents’ generation, Vetrano said at one time people got married and raised their children and that was about it.
“Today they see many healthy years ahead of them.”
“They decide, ‘I’m going to make those years happy.’ “ Vetrano said.
If the years ahead are not healthy ones, other issues arise.
Brennan said going through an elder divorce can be like walking through a mine field for estate planning lawyers, especially if the couple admits that they are divorcing because of the cost of long-term health care.
“I had one case where one spouse admitted they didn’t want their entire savings to go to take care of the other in a nursing home.
Concerns about long-term health care and nursing homes are real. The costs are so high that it doesn’t take long to go through an entire life savings.
But lawyers must walk a fine line when advising these clients. They can’t present the case as irreconcilable differences if it is purely financial.” Brennan said.
Some couples hope that after divorcing, the estate will pick up the tab for their ex souse’s long-term care.
Another financial issue is the fact that many women today are no longer economically dependent on their husband, which makes it easier for them to make the break if they are unhappy in their situation.
“Now a woman will often have her own 401K and isn’t worried about her future.” Brennan said.
In addition, Brennan said she believes seniors today are probably influenced by the generation behind them – the baby boomers.
With many different lifestyle issues, boomers, Brennan said, “would rather pitch it” if something isn’t working.
“I think this trend is just a reflection of so many things in society today.” Brennan said.
Vetrano would agree but says, “Its unfortunate. There’s still usually one party that is very hurt and there is complacency on the part of the one spouse.”