Divorce among older couples is not something we're raised to expect. But the divorce rate among those over age 65 is increasing. It hovered at 5 percent in 1990, according to U.S. Census records. By 2002, it was up to 7.4 percent. That's an increase of 48 percent over a 12 year period. Erika Appenzeller, a family law attorney with the Leonard Law Group in Atlantic City, New Jersey, says there are several reasons for this.
The Empty Nest
"In older couples, you sometimes see the marriage dissolve once the parties become empty-nesters," says Ms. Appenzeller. "These are generally couples who got married early and started a family right away. Once the children leave, they figure out how distant they've become." And according to FutureYears, an on-line magazine geared toward those of retirement age, sometimes spouses have been miserable for awhile, but have delayed the divorce decision until the children are grown.
According to Ms. Appenzeller, the oft-blamed midlife crisis really is frequently the culprit. "The husband or wife becomes romantically involved with a younger person who they think brings a certain excitement they don't have in their current marriage," she says. "What they don't realize is that the new relationship is only fun because there's no responsibility with it." According to FutureYears, women tend to cite emotional abuse as a leading factor for divorce, as well as infidelity. It's the husbands who complain more of incompatibility and loss of love, potentially leading them to look elsewhere.
"The saddest kind of divorce among the elderly is when one party becomes ill or the parties lose a child," says Ms. Appenzeller. "This sort of tragedy is one that some couples simply can't recover from."
Unfortunately, while the stress caused by illness can cause divorce, often the economic impact of illness is to blame. When one spouse is stricken to the extent that he or she requires a nursing home, such facilities can cost as much as $12,000 per month. This can wipe out an elderly couple's assets and retirement benefits very quickly. One alternative is divorce. Heartbreaking though it may be, the healthy partner remains financially intact, and the ill spouse's care is then covered by Medicaid.
The Bad News
Financially, older women are at a significant disadvantage post-divorce. This is a generation who were traditionally homemakers. Only a minority of women in this age group have pensions of their own. Men, on the other hand, balk at paying alimony once they're collecting their pensions, and many state laws support them in this position. The result is that divorced elderly women end up trying to exist on Social Security--or they face a job market they're woefully unprepared and too old for.
The Good News
FutureYears reports that 75 to 81 percent of divorced elderly move on to healthy and happy relationships. And with the divorce rate among all ages climbing, more people are divorcees by the time they reach their golden years, so there's a new measure of social acceptability...and lots of company.
- Erika A. Appenzeller, Esquire; Leonard Law Group; Atlantic City, New Jersey
- MedRounds Publications: The Encyclopedia of Aing & the Elderly
- ElderLawyers: Eye on Elder Issues
- FutureYears: Divorce After 50
Beverly Bird is a professional writer who is also a practicing paralegal in the areas of divorce and family law. She has offered community workshops for single parents, helping them with the financial and lifestyle issues they often face.