Divorcing later in life

July 20th, 2021

As co-habiting rather than marriage becomes the norm among younger generations, the number of divorces in the over 60s has suddenly started to climb. Couples who married very young in the 1970s have stayed together for longer because, for years, divorce was not only frowned upon but was a difficult and lengthy process too.

It’s a sad fact of life that even after 30 or 40 years together, couples can eventually grow apart. As retirement is now being regarded as the start of a new phase in life, rather than the sedentary decline it was seen as years ago, older people are once again embracing their independence. That in turn has led to a higher number of marriage breakdowns in older couples, and these ‘Silver Separators’ are now some of the most likely to end their marriage in a divorce court.

The trouble is that older couples are often far more financially dependent upon each other, so divorcing later in life can bring with it a whole raft of issues that younger divorcees may not experience. While the issue of younger dependents is not so much of a factor (as the kids have grown up and may have flown the nest by now), issues such as joint pensions and financial investments can cause real problems.

The emotional fallout, too, is likely to be more extreme, as the sense of ‘I gave you the best years of my life’ can result in a decidedly acrimonious separation. Older couples who divorce often make far more use of mediators to try and untangle the web of interconnected threads, simply because they cannot bring themselves to talk to one another without a sense of betrayal or a lot of hurt feelings getting in the way.

Pension pots – who gets what?

Age UK reported back in 2018 on the number of women who are losing out when it comes to the fair distribution of pensions in divorce cases. The problem is that often, the issue of entitlement to a husband’s private pension isn’t even discussed during the divorce process. In a policy report entitled ‘For love and money: Women’s pensions, expenditure and decision-making in retirement’ the charity called for private pensions to be considered as part of the divorce process and whenever possible, to be divided fairly. The impact on an older person’s income if they divorce later in life could be huge, leading to real hardship at a time when most of us are hoping for a little bit of financial comfort and a worry-free retirement.
Age UK found that around 40% of women aged 55-70 are heavily financially dependent on their partner’s income. If that’s taken away as a result of a divorce, that’s a very large number of older women who are left struggling to make ends meet.

The issues that really cause a problem are:
• Who holds the majority of a pension (especially a final salary scheme), and whether or not they consider it to be exclusively ‘theirs’
• If either party feels any of the payments made into a pension plan should be ‘ringfenced’ because they pre-date the marriage
• If one person hasn’t made sufficient state pension contributions and is left trying to survive on the bare minimum
• Taxation on the pension, and if it exceeds the lifetime threshold boundaries.

Who gets the house?

While the mortgage may have been paid off, the distribution of property at the end of a marriage can be complex. One partner may want to carry on living in the property they’ve turned into their ‘forever home’ while the other is left with no share of the worth of the property, even if they’ve spent the last 25 years paying half the mortgage bill.

If a considerable amount of money has been put into improving a property, then the settlement may not accurately represent just how much either partner has invested over the years. Simply ‘splitting it down the middle’ especially if one partner is reluctant to move out, may not work.

What about the kids?

While they may be grown up, the kids of ‘Silver Separators’ should still be taken into account, especially when it comes to inheritance issues. The fact that far more older dependents are still living at home could also cause a considerable issue when it comes to older couples divorcing. This difficult time can lead to real family conflict, especially when feelings are already running high.

One of the most important aspects of dealing with divorce in later life is to keep the lines of communication open. While there may be recriminations aplenty, the only way to solve the situation is to keep talking.

Mediation is a practical and effective method of helping older couples come to an amicable arrangement. If you and your partner are thinking of parting ways after a lifetime of marriage, talk to a family law specialist who will be able to help you go through the specific issues that older couples face when they divorce.