Publish date

7 May 2021

How do I cope with a later-life break-up?

Bill and Melinda Gates divorced following 27 years of marriage. They announced that after three children and having established a successful foundation that they “no longer believe we can grow together as a couple”.

At 56 and 65 years of age, the Gates’ split forms part of a new trend in later-life divorce. According to ONS statistics, whilst the divorce rate in the UK declined for most couples, it has increased by up to 38% in those aged 65 and over. This is in part because people are living longer and are more healthy and active. It is also arguably part of a growing trend of people not staying together for the “sake of the children”. In these cases, their children are adults, and so they use this as an opportunity to rec-calibrate and recognise the importance of individual happiness.  As with most divorces, it is often the decision of one party, with the other left reeling as they try to catch up dealing with many emotions including fear, anger, jealousy and bereavement.

What do I need to think about when it comes to divorce in later life?

Later-life divorces have a lot in common with younger divorces, but also some issues which are particular to a couple who are already in, or approaching, retirement.  In these situations it is more likely that one person has been the main, or even sole, breadwinner for many years. Whilst there is no discrimination in law between homemaker and breadwinner, it can be daunting to face the prospect of managing your own finances (from internet banking to bill payments, to completion of tax returns) having always been historically dependent on someone else to do so until now.

It is also common in these cases that one person will have built up a more significant pension pot than the other. Again, there is no discrimination in law, and it is possible for pensions to be shared to give both parties an income following divorce. It is important for the spouse who has not previously managed pensions to take advice about how best to invest the pension share he or she receives, as well as how best to deal with other assets.

On looking to future income needs it is important to think about immediate expenditure, as well as perhaps how this will reduce when things like international travel are less attractive, or perhaps increase if care is required in old age.

What is the best approach to later life divorce?

As a collaborative lawyer, I am a big fan of resolving issues around the table with both spouses and their lawyers, rather than potentially spending years arguing the case through the courts.  With collaborative law, experts can be brought in to assist one or both parties with issues, such as how to invest and manage finances. They can also help with tricky emotional issues where, for example, one person is reluctant to sell the family home (with all the memories and to which children and grandchildren are expected to visit). Options can be explored including a mortgage to provide the other spouse with a lump sum with no repayments required until death.

Inevitably it can be difficult to try and discuss such issues openly, particularly where one person is still feeling very hurt and angry with the decision being imposed upon them. In my experience, it is significantly healthier than resolving things through contentious court proceedings. It is also easier for the extended family, such as adult children who are making a big adjustment to see their parents who, in their eyes, were happily married their whole lives deciding to separate. Adult children may also be concerned about the potential burden (financial and/or emotional) of looking after a parent that assumed the other parent would support for many years to come. Siblings may also disagree on how this responsibility should be shared.

How do I move on from later life divorce?

It is also important to think about the fact that couples have probably built up assets that they envisaged would be passed on to their children. Following separation and divorce, both spouses may develop new relationships, leading to the potential for children of the first marriage to miss out on inheritance. Again, with collaborative law, it is possible to have difficult discussions around the table. Here, inheritance tax could be discussed for planning purposes, either to pass on assets now, or to have agreements that the children of the marriage will be provided for in wills made post-divorce.

I would recommend taking legal and financial advice early on, as well as getting the right emotional support to assist you. This will ensure that you are properly prepared and are fully informed of any implications for your current reality and future.

A version of this article first appeared in ePrivate Client

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