Barbara Ballinger panicked when her husband of 29 years told her he wanted a divorce. At 51, she hadn’t seen the end of her marriage coming and wasn’t prepared to cover half the expenses for their five-bedroom home in a St. Louis suburb, their two daughters’ college tuitions, car and home insurance, and other necessities. She’d always worked, as a writer, but “he earned as a corporate attorney more than five times what I did,” says Ballinger, who is now 67.
She began clipping grocery coupons, eliminated Starbucks lattes and meals out, put off home repairs, and made fewer visits to the hair salon, while taking on as many freelance assignments as she could land. Still, during a trip to visit her daughters at college, a car rental company turned her away because she didn’t have a credit card in good standing. “My living standard changed dramatically,” she recalls.
Americans 50 and older are getting divorced at a higher rate than younger people—and much more frequently than in prior decades. As life spans lengthen, couples who’ve celebrated their silver and even golden anniversaries—who in earlier generations likely would have stayed together until death despite their differences—are going their separate ways. Many decide they don’t want to spend their senior years unhappily wed, especially since they’re likely to live healthily into their 70s and 80s. People 50 and older comprised 25 percent of all Americans who got divorced in 2014, up from about 8 percent in 1990. Divorce among this older group doubled during that period, while plateauing or declining for younger couples, according to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
Those who quit their marriage late in life sacrifice retirement security. “The vast majority of older couples who divorce, even if they’ve both worked or are still employed, see their standard of living decline substantially,” says Joslin Davis, an attorney and president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. “It’s a lot more expensive to live in separate households than in one home, and the retirement savings you’ve accumulated must be divided, leaving each spouse with less.”
Many are forced to put off retirement until they regain their financial footing or because they have alimony obligations. Divorce attorney Davis says she often grapples with “how to create an alimony stream of income for a dependent spouse, at least for a period of time, while also making sure the providing spouse gets to stop working and retire at some point.”
Women initiate 60 percent of divorces after age 40, according to the AARP, even though they usually suffer more financially, because they earn less than their husbands and are much more likely to have taken time off from paid employment to care for children and elderly parents. “Women have long been less tolerant of a mediocre relationship,” says Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families at the University of Texas at Austin. “And today they don’t feel finished at 50. They believe they can reinvent themselves, so they’ll take the financial hit.”
Custody battles are not usually a feature of gray divorce, but there’s plenty of other things to quarrel over. About 62 percent of divorcing couples among those 50 or older fight about retirement savings in the process of reaching a settlement, according to a recent survey of members of the Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Eighty-three percent fight over alimony, and 60 percent spar about business interests, the survey found.
It doesn’t help that many people are completely in the dark about their spouse’s personal finances. Twenty-one percent of more than 1,800 couples who were either married or living together didn’t know the value of their partner’s retirement account, according to a recent Harris Poll survey for website NerdWallet. A 65-year-old woman from Rye, N.Y., who’s a manager at a nonprofit, didn’t realize her husband of 27 years had squirreled away several hundred thousand dollars in an investment account until she discovered a statement in his desk during their divorce last year. Still, because she’d invested her retirement savings more aggressively, she had to give her ex $50,000. The woman, who didn’t want work colleagues to know her situation, asked not to be identified.
Some seniors choose to avoid acrimony and legal fees even if that means walking away with less than they’re legally entitled to. A 68-year-old furniture maker and restorer in Old Saybrook, Conn., had a much smaller income and less retirement savings than his wife, a corporate caterer. But he didn’t ask for alimony or a portion of her 401(k) when they divorced two years ago; he didn’t want his two adult children to accuse him of hurting their mother financially. He asked not to be identified because he didn’t want to discuss his divorce publicly.
It took Ballinger about four years to reach a settlement with her ex. She says she was both “pleased and disappointed” with the terms, which she didn’t want to disclose, but mostly relieved to know where she stood financially. She’s living much more frugally now than she did when married. She’s still working and has no plans to retire.
The co-author with Margaret Crane of Suddenly Single After 50, Ballinger advises older women going through divorces to mediate settlements if possible, to consider freezing both shared and separate 401(k) and IRA accounts until an agreement is reached, and to purchase insurance to protect alimony payments in case of an ex-husband’s death. “I still worry about my financial future, but my happiness is no longer linked to the lost dollars we worked so hard to save,” she says. “I have income coming in and, most important, my health, daughters, a grandson, and many friends.”
The bottom line: People 50 and older were twice as likely to go through divorce in 2014 than in 1990, while rates for younger Americans have dipped.