Recently, I got into a bit of a tiff with a male friend over the issue of money and marital status, as I insisted that more women are screwed financially by divorce than the other way around.
As for my friend, although he divorced at midlife — a “gray” divorce — he didn’t engage in the usual acrimonious and adversarial battles over assets. You know the sort: those that line the attorneys’ pockets and leave one or both parties miserable with the end result.
I would like to think that my friend isn’t the exception, but I have known many women, especially those divorcing at 45 or older, who have found themselves stunned by what awaits them and the enormity of the challenges of starting over in their 50s or older.
Gone are the days of de facto alimony — as in the 1967 Hollywood farce, Divorce American Style, slyly played out by Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds. In its place are very real concerns of trying to survive.
Asking Tough Financial Questions
For women who are considering separation or divorce, you need to ask yourself tough questions.
- If you have work, can you live on your own pay? Are you “employed” and therefore receiving benefits, or are you dependent on your spouse’s benefits? Are you working as an independent contractor, and left to deal with (unpaid) sick time, (unpaid) disability, (uncompensated) periods of unemployment, the employer portion of social security in addition to your own, and lack of any employment protections?
- Do you have assets of your own that are not considered communal? Do you have any retirement savings? Does your spouse have retirement savings, to which you have most likely contributed indirectly through your greater amount of energies devoted to home, family and his career?
- If you don’t have a job now, how rusty are your skills? Can you find work? Will your legal troubles disrupt the process? Will you run into age discrimination as you look for a job, which is certainly prevalent despite discrimination laws?
- Are you still raising kids at 50 or 55? This is certainly possible if you had your children in your late 30s or early-to-mid 40s. Can you afford what tweens and teens require, even in public schools, like driver’s education, teen driver car insurance, fees associated with high school programs, not to mention the cost of college applications and college itself?
- At midlife, many of us are dealing with aging parents and elder care issues. Have you factored in that time and those expenses – which may involve your parents and his parents – especially as it is more frequently women who take on that caretaking role?
- What about that dwindling pool of potential suitors if finding a relationship will be a priority? Do you think it will be easy? Have you tried putting in your real age online if the first digit happens to be a 5? Don’t we all know how commonplace it is for men over 50 to date younger?
Money Makes the World Go Around…
What is the greatest fear of midlife women?
You got it. Financial survival. And women going through gray divorce are more at risk.
Addressing the “big money mistake” that divorcing women make, Forbes and Next Avenue mention not splitting retirement assets in an article that situates the problem:
As you have probably heard, gray divorce is a thing. The National Center for Family & Marriage Research says the divorce rate among adults 50 and older doubled from 1990 to 2010. And in 2010, 11% of men and 15% of women age 65 to 75 were divorced, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau. (In 1960… just 2% of men and 2% of women that age were.)
Consider for a moment this article, also appearing on Forbes via Next Avenue, with data from summer 2014, in which a Prudential study on women’s financial experience and behaviors is cited:
Not surprisingly, the “Confidence Gap” (the measure of women’s confidence in their ability to attain their financial goals) has not improved over [a] 10-year span…
While 75% of the 1,407 American women (age 25 to 68) polled said having enough money to maintain their lifestyle throughout retirement was very important, only 14% were very confident they will meet that goal. And just 20% said they felt prepared to make smart money moves.
Worrisome, no? Regardless of marital status.
Spousal Support? Think Again.
Incidentally, this article on Forbes from 2013 discusses the purpose of alimony and considerations on alimony reforms. You might find it informative.
Key points in the article that are directly related to the discussion of midlife divorce and financial situation include:
After several decades, he is at the peak of his earning potential (thanks in part to her) and she is relatively unemployable (except for some low paying clerical or minimum wage job).
Even though they may be dividing assets 50-50, he, because of his earning power will replace some or all of those assets over time while she, because of her lack of earning power, will be liquidating assets from day one and will ultimately go broke. The purpose of alimony is to somewhat equalize this disparity.
Note that alimony is also known as spousal support, and like child support, the statutes differ by state – sometimes dramatically – so divorcing women should familiarize themselves with state-specific laws.
Knowledge Is Power
If the goal is to minimize long-term financial harm to all parties involved, what might help?
For women, try these on for size: financial literacy, asking more questions, educating ourselves before divorce (if we possibly can), and making no assumptions during or after when it comes to money, career, finding a new man, finding a “provider,” or landing on our feet.
While we may all hope this is an improving picture over time, let’s not forget this reality. According to the American Association of University Women, these are the figures on female earnings by ethnicity, and what we earn on the white male dollar:
… Asian women earn 87 cents;
… White women earn 78 cents;
… African-American women earn 64 cents;
… Latina women earn 53 cents.
Demographic data from 2012 also show that women earn the least in the 45-54 and 54-65 age brackets. I find that surprising (considering the experience we would have at that stage), and disheartening to say the least.
Yes, of course. But remember – splitting the assets of one household into two means less to live on, with expenses that are not necessarily reduced by the same percentage, or reduced at all. So I would ask again: Do you have work that will enable you to support yourself? And in the future? And for retirement?
And if there is an emergency of some sort – medical for example, or an issue with a child? How will you manage that? If not piles of money, do you have a strong support system?
Recovery Is Possible
As for whether or not we can land on our feet, it is possible of course. But we’re far more likely to be crawling our way back to a life we recognize, than picking up our stride as quickly as we might like.
As referenced in the articles I mention, midlife women are working at lower paying jobs, with less time to recover and save than if we were younger, and with more challenges as we grow older – and quite possibly, grow older alone.
In the discussion with my friend, he was adamant that people shouldn’t condemn themselves to staying in unhappy marriages forever, particularly once kids are out of the nest and on their own. This is typical of the gray divorce attitude: “I stuck it out, I raised my kids, and I want something more before it’s too late.”
This attitude exists for both men and women whose marriages have seemingly reached a dead end.
I nonetheless pointed out that his career was not impacted by divorce, his medical insurance was not interrupted, and his health was not affected in any way. Nor was his identity suddenly shifted as it would have been if he had been breadwinner as well as primary caregiver to children, responsible for keeping a home, and support system for his partner’s career.
Moreover, he retained half of all his assets, and his dating life has thrived, even in his 50s. That is a far cry from what many women go through, as their recovery from midlife divorce involves a more extensive set of challenges.
Do I believe that we should stay in lifeless marriages until the day we die?
Hardly. But short of virulent situations, and most of us know what those are, I believe that we should do everything in our power to address the issues at hand and rebuild. I know all too well that may not be possible, and I return to this: If we keep our eyes wide open, if we do our homework, if we fight for what we are entitled to, if we take ownership of financial realities and work to be better informed, then we are better positioned to establish a new life.
Among other things, that new life may encourage us to reevaluate priorities – both personal and professional – and to simplify in positive ways. This is more difficult when you are still raising children, and if you are restricted to a geographic area (by custody and visitation) where you have difficulty making a living. The bottom line: You shouldn’t have to beg, borrow or steal to make it week to week or month to month.
All the more reason for proper knowledge and representation during a midlife divorce.
Moreover, just because you’ve been a female breadwinner in the past, don’t assume that carrying the load on your own (or with kids) will be an easy road to travel. That said, you may find you are pushed to discover and create new professional opportunities that open up a whole new world — more entrepreneurial, financially viable, and deeply satisfying.
Meanwhile, check out the articles above if you missed them. They make strong points and offer excellent suggestions for upping your comfort level with financial matters. As for getting more comfortable with any decisions regarding marriage, there are many online resources.
Be sure to check out what is applicable in your state of residence. The differences are significant.
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