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Divorce and the Elderly: Special Needs

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Recently we have been seeing a number of divorce cases for people over 70 years of age. In one case the wife was 80 and the husband was 88. You may be surprised, I was, but I learned quite a bit about the special needs of people divorcing in their elder years.

Legal Separation vs. Divorce: In the case of our 80 year old client, she had little income and had acquired a very small pension. Her husband had been a federal employee and had a federal pension. After researching the federal pension, we found that she would be much better off financially if she legally separated rather than divorced. She could maintain her health benefits and would be able to separately receive half of the pension check. She would loose her health benefits if she divorced and she might loose her death benefit if her husband pre-deceased her. In this case it made an enormous difference to stay married but legally separate. Our client was pleased with this option. She had no interest in re-marriage. She just wanted to live on her own. This type of inquiry is very important in divorces with people that are well into retirement.

The Stress of Change: We all understand that there is a great deal of stress associated with any divorce. However, there are added complications with the elderly. Disrupting an elderly person's surroundings and routine are particularly difficult. If you have ever assisted a family member to move from their home to a assisted living situation, you know what I mean. The added stress for the elderly in a divorce makes the support of family, friends and community a very large necessity. We had one elderly client who was adamant about divorcing but after moving out and discovering that her two adult children were not supportive, she found that her health was deteriorating and ultimately decided to move back in with her husband. She could not tolerate the stress of formulating a new life on her own. This situation might have been different with family support.

Financial Stress: Unless the elderly couple has significant personal wealth, in most cases the two individuals will not be able to maintain the lifestyle that they are accustomed to together. This includes the ability to move into assisted living as a couple. The costs of assisted living for a couple are considerably less than for two individuals. The decrease in standard of living is often the factor that can keep an elderly couple together even when they have trouble tolerating one another. However, with the increase in the number of couples where both were in the workforce for most of their adult lives, we may find more and more elderly couples willing to deal with the financial downside of divorcing after 70. What we have heard from elderly divorcing couples is that they put up with the other person's personality issues for so long and they only have so many more years to live and they just can't tolerate it any more.

I would suspect that as we see the baby boomer generation continue to age that we will see more divorces in the third third of life. There seems to be more of an expectation of life being enjoyable and an unwillingness to stay in a situation that continues to be untenable.

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