Baby Boomers grew up in an era when it was common to take a job – and a partner – for life. But the sharp increase in ‘grey divorces’ being reported around the world suggests that this generation is seriously evaluating how they’d like to spend the rest of their lives. And for many, that’s not necessarily with their long-time spouse.
Data from the Pew Research Centre in America shows divorce rates in over-65s have tripled since the 1990s, with the trend believed to be a result of people living longer and being healthier and more active in their later years than previous generations – and thus no doubt realising that they have a lot of life left to live, and want to spend it with the right person.
In Australia, divorce lawyers anecdotally report a rise in so-called grey divorces, while the Australian Bureau of Statistics data show a definite creep upwards in the average age of divorcees, from 36.6 years for men and 33.4 years for women in 1974 to 45.5 years and 42.9 years in 2016.
And yet, separating from your partner later in life can present many more challenges than for younger couples, not least because of the complexity of family relationships and the extent to which your lives and finances are entwined.
So, if you are contemplating a separation, how do you go about revealing your plans to your nearest and dearest, shoring yourself up financially, and ultimately, adjusting to your new independence?
Whether it was your decision to initiate the split, or it’s been forced upon you, it’s important to choose the right time to tell your loved ones, particularly your children and other close family members.
Rachel Scharrer, the founder of Divorce Answered, an online resource for people going through a divorce, recommends creating a plan that includes the dates and times you’re going to have conversations with select people. She also advises using the same sensitivity when telling your adult children as you would if they were still youngsters, because they may still experience feelings of confusion and uncertainty as a young child might.
“Choose the time, the location, and the day – pick the right setting,” she says. “Because even though they are adults, they are still little kids at heart, and it will come as a surprise. I know many adults who are like ‘I just don’t understand why my parents are getting a divorce. It just doesn’t make sense’.”
Scharrer says it’s also important to decide – if possible, as a couple – whether you’ll tell your family and friends together or separately. “Have the same story and a short excerpt of extra information to satisfy curiosity without going into too much information,” she says.
When considering how to break the news to your grandchildren, it’s important to discuss the approach with their parents first. “I do think it’s up to the parents to decide who will tell the grandchildren and what is shared with them, because ultimately the adult children or parents of the grandchildren have to deal with the fallout,” Scharrer explains. “The explanation for older kids is going to need to be a little more detailed. You can’t just sort of gloss over it with ‘Granny isn’t happy anymore’. That’s not enough. They will want to know a little bit more.”
While it can be tempting to confide in your adult children as you work through the emotional trauma of your marriage split, the divorce expert cautions against using your children as therapists.
“Choose your friends, not the children,” Scharrer says. “You need to channel whatever gamut of emotions you’re going through elsewhere, and keep the children out of it. Try to make the conscious decision from the outset, that ‘my child is not getting involved in my divorce’.”
Relationships Australia has some useful resources that provide general advice on the separation or divorce process. Its material discusses some of the practical issues that need to be resolved as part of the split, including setting up separate homes (and potentially finding somewhere to live in a hurry), sorting out money and property issues and dealing with the changing family dynamics that a marriage breakdown can bring.
It’s helpful to get your support network in place at the outset. Having supportive friends around you at this tough time will help you to remember who you are outside of being ‘one half of a couple’, have some laughs and maintain some perspective. It can also be prudent to see your accountant, solicitor and financial planner at this time to start considering your legal and financial position.
It’s often only once you start to consider untangling yourself from a long-term relationship that you realise how enmeshed your life with your spouse may be. That’s why one of the most important early steps is to protect your privacy going forward. This can include changing passwords for your phone, computer, internet and phone banking, email, social media and other personal accounts.
The early days after your decision to separate is a good time to take an inventory of your financial situation. You’ll need to know what money you’re able to access immediately if you need a larger sum for, say, a rental deposit, as well what income and expenses you have.
It’s worth contacting Centrelink as soon as you can, as your change of marriage status may qualify you for some government assistance.
Banks including Westpac have checklists to guide you through the steps you’ll need to take as you work towards a financial split. These checklists are also helpful in identifying the information you may need to prepare for an initial meeting with a lawyer or another professional adviser.
Neil Herlihy, head of segment experience and acquisition at Westpac, says the bank strongly recommends downloading a Proof of Balance Statement as soon as possible. It’s a snapshot of all your joint and individual accounts and the balances for each.
“It just gives people peace of mind that they know where they’ve come from, know how much they’ve got and, should money disappear in whatever way, they are able to track it back,” he explains.
Herlihy notes that couples with more complex joint finances and a heated divorce situation are sometimes at risk of being shut out from their access to joint funds by their partner. “We suggest that customers, ideally before they go through these separations, and these type of life events, consider having their own accounts – not just joint accounts – and some measure of independence,” he says.
Herlihy says it’s also important to let your bank know of your separation as soon as possible so it can advise you on the establishment of new accounts and how to deal with any joint debts.
It can also be helpful at this point to create a budget to gain a clearer picture of your income and expenses.
If you’re not retired, this exercise can help clarify whether you’re saving enough for an independent retirement or if you need to make some changes. Having a budget will also be helpful for conversations with your bank, should you need to consider repaying loans or refinancing any debts.
If you’re closer to or in retirement, Herlihy says divorce can mean a significant readjustment of perhaps long-held financial plans.
“A lot of people have a plan in place, or a vision of where they’re wanting to go with their retirement, and this will need to obviously be changed now and adjusted for,” he says. “They need to take stock of their assets and what they will have post-settlement, if it’s a formal divorce, or the separation.
“And then they really need to look again at what are their goals, what would they like out of their lifestyle in retirement? And for ways to best invest or grow their assets? It might be even training and going back to work.”
While some divorces are amicable and others are anything but, it may be helpful to remember that there is plenty of assistance available. It can temporarily feel like your world is crashing down around you, but the road to independence can bring unexpected new opportunities and adventures into your life.