After 33 years of marriage, Gary Word found himself in an unexpected situation: suddenly single. He was 60 years old.
Diane Bing was 54 when her 25-year marriage ended two years ago. She had stayed at home to help raise her two stepsons and was “totally unprepared” for post-divorce life.
And for Debbie Nodar, “forever” ended in March, after 28 years. Though the split was amicable, the 50-year-old says, “as you get older, it’s harder. You’ve had all this time together.”
The three Miami-Dade County residents are part of a sharp spike in “silver divorces ,” a trend that demographers are just now chronicling. The increase worries everyone from therapists to financial planners, who question how society will deal with an aging population that is increasingly single and more likely to be economically vulnerable in retirement.
The divorce rate for the 50-and-over set more than doubled between 1990 and 2010, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. In 1990, about 1 in 10 divorces involved people 50 and older. Just 10 years later, in 2010, it was about 1 in 4.
“This is not something we anticipated at all,” said sociologist Susan L. Brown, one of the Bowling Green researchers. In the past, divorce rates rates dropped with age. Brown and fellow researcher I-Fen Lin found that this was not true for the current generation of those over 50.
Other studies have confirmed these findings. Demographers at the University of Minnesota found that while the divorce rate has flattened or dipped for other age groups, it has gone up for older couples. The most startling numbers: In the 65 and older set, where divorce has generally been quite rare, the divorce rate per 1,000 married woman is now five times the rate it was in 1970.
Blame the jump on the baby boomers, that 78 million-strong group born between 1946 and 1964. Brown and other researchers have found that this generation has driven the huge increase in divorce that began in the 1970s. Sheela Kennedy, one of the University of Minnesota demographers, said that as boomers grow older, they continue to get divorced at higher rates than their parents and grandparents did at the same age. She describes the divorce rate as a timeline that bulges every time the boomers hit an age group.
“They were the first to experience divorce in greater numbers and now, as they age, their pattern of marital instability continues,” she said.
A recent survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) confirms that narrative. More than 60 percent of divorce attorneys polled have seen an increase in the number of divorcing couples over 50. Mitchell Karpf, a member of the AAML who has offices on Brickell Avenue in Miami and in Weston, said that just last year he had two cases of couples in their 60s splitting up — a rare occurrence in his practice. Both were long-term marriages.
“It seems that when the kids are gone, one spouse decides to call it quits,” Karpf said. “Whatever years they have left, they want to enjoy. Boomers aren’t willing to settle for mediocrity in a relationship.”
The reasons for later-in-life divorces are many and varied. Like Karpf, Robin Stillwell, a Miami-Dade marriage and family therapist for more than three decades, said boomers have a different mindset from the generations that came before them. “Life expectancy is longer now, but we also see ourselves as younger than our parents felt at our age,” she added. “People figure they have a good 20 or 30 years left and they want to get on with their lives while they can.”
Divorce has also become more acceptable over time. “There was a huge cultural shift back in the 1970s that has persisted ever since,” said Brown of Bowling Green State. “There isn’t that stigma there once was.”
Because they’ve experienced higher rates of divorce, boomers also are more likely than their parents to have remarried. Brown found that those re-marriages, in turn, are 2 ½ times more likely to end in divorce. Stepchildren and meddling exes are the primary reason for second and third marriage breakups.
“Stepchildren, the jealousies that come up, can be a big problem,” said Karpf, the family law attorney. “The Brady Bunch really doesn’t exist.”
Regardless of the reason, divorce can be devastating at any age. Word, now 63, describes his split up as “amicable but tense.” He spent the first few months after his wife filed trying to reconcile. He had to rethink his early retirement and his long held plans for travel.
“It’s tough,” he said. “I’m doing OK, but it’s not what I envisioned for myself at this age.”
Word, who had served as city manager in Surfside, was better prepared than most for some of the hard choices he was forced to make. He set up a part-time business in drug and alcohol testing and ended up taking Social Security early, a move he hadn’t planned on if he had stayed married. He kept his pension but gave up his IRAs as well as some of the joint rental properties the couple owned. He took up cycling and is now dating.
Nodar, who runs Worldwide Assurance, a company that sells insurance products, with a partner, is still struggling with the “emotional part” of her divorce. “I’m still coming to terms that when I go to bed, I’m going to bed alone,” she said.
She and her ex-husband are selling the house where they raised their two daughters and she considers the division of marital assets fair. But she also knows that now she will have to work longer than she had planned.
“I’m prepared for it,” said Nodar, “but it’s an adjustment like everything else.”
Not everyone is as fortunate. Diane Bing, the longtime homemaker, had no clue what to do after her divorce. Her ex-husband had done both the investing and the bill paying. Though she was awarded permanent alimony, “I couldn’t think of what I was supposed to do, how I was supposed to do it. I had no brain.”
A friend told her about Matters of Divorce, a Miami-based service (www.mattersofdivorce.com) that helps people like Bing through the messy and time-consuming process of financial and emotional separation. Matters of Divorce assigns a “transition advocate” to every case to help the client with a to-do checklist and offers referrals to vetted service providers, from attorneys to therapists and financial planners. Nodar also used the service.
Carlos Blanco, 52, launched the company after he found himself making a slew of important decisions as his 24-year marriage ended. When he couldn’t find a company to help in the transition, Blanco, an entrepreneur who had just sold his technology sales and marketing firm, seized on the business opportunity. Though Matters of Divorce has clients of all ages, Blanco has noticed a sizable amount of silver divorces. These tend to be more complicated. While older couples usually don’t have to haggle over custody and weekends, there are more assets to divvy up — marital homes with lots of equity, pensions and retirement accounts.
“Divorce is the biggest negotiation of your life,” Blanco said. “And when you’re 50 or older, there’s very little room to recover.”
Blanco sold the marital home two years ago and now rents. He established new holiday traditions and a network of friends, even bought long-term health insurance for care that his ex-wife would likely have provided. He also paid temporary alimony.
Last year’s survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that alimony was the most common issue of contention in silver divorces. But divorce is more than an untangling of finances. Even for those who want it, venturing into a world without a long-time companion can be intimidating.
“If someone has been out of the dating scene for 20, 30 or 40 years, the idea of dating is scary,” says Stillwell, the family therapist. “Despite Viagra and Cialis and facelifts, there’s still a vulnerability in taking your clothes off in front of another person.”
As boomers continue to divorce, sociologist Brown and others believe the demographic shift may spell trouble for society because poverty rates for older single Americans are far higher than for their married counterparts. A January 2014 report for the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging by the U.S. Government Accountability Office warned of economic vulnerability “because unmarried individuals are unable to take advantage of the economic benefits and efficiencies of marriage.” There are no built-in caregivers, no second source of income.
Aging advocates and public policy experts are asking: Who will pick up the slack? The boomers’ children, if they have any, or the government? How will the just-divorced-but-about-to-retire group affect Social Security, Medicare and other benefit programs? Will they continue to work? Will they downsize more often, travel less? Who will be their caregivers?
“We don’t really know how this is going to shake out in the future or even for future generations,” said Stillwell, who regularly sees clients struggling with the economic and emotional losses of divorce. “But we can take one lesson from this. A marriage needs to be nurtured. You can’t put it on automatic pilot or cruise control and forget about it.”
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