An alarming fact has surfaced amid the media fascination with aging baby boomers, and it’s not about the number of knee replacements or sales of touring motorcycles (although both of these are up).
They’re getting divorced.
In 2009, the divorce rate for people in the 50-and-older age group was twice as high as it was in 1990 (10 divorced persons per 1,000 married versus five divorced persons per 1,000 married). By contrast, the overall U.S. divorce rate stayed essentially flat during this 20-year span.
These findings by Professor Susan Brown and Associate Professor I-Fen Lin of Bowling Green State University’s department of sociology are significant for financial advisors. The increasingly larger older segment of the population holds most of the nation’s wealth, yet divorce can leave both ex-spouses at risk of a financially pinched retirement. What’s more, Brown and Lin say, “the divorced are expected to constitute a larger share of older persons.”
Why this later-life boom in busting up? What are its implications in dealing with divorcing couples and divorced individuals? What kind of resources should you have on hand to help older clients going through this often-painful life transition?
In this article, the first in a two-part series, we’ll identify the key issues and suggest tips on how to work with divorcing boomers. Next month we’ll focus specifically on divorce and older women—a group that presents unique challenges for advisors.
WHAT’S GOING ON?
You’re probably aware that a number of your older clients are divorcing or divorced, but Brown and Lin were the first to quantify what’s been happening in this age group.
“We might imagine that older adults don’t get divorced,” Brown told me. “That might have been true in 1990 when only one in 10 divorcés were over 50; but today, we found, it’s one in four.”
Why are so many people divorcing later in life? The BGSU study suggests several reasons.
“Me” Generation expectations. Boomers were the first generation to bring expectations of self-fulfillment and personal happiness to marriage. If they’re dissatisfied with the way their marital relationship has changed over time, they feel entitled to seek greener pastures.
Greater longevity. As Marlo Van Oorschot, Esq., a family law attorney in Los Angeles and author of “How to Survive Grey Divorce,” expressed it: “People are thinking, ‘I’m 50 or 60 now; I could live till I’m 90. I don’t want to live with this person for the next 30 or 40 years of my life.’”
More women in the work force. As more wives earn paychecks and start to build their own 401(k)s, the economic ties have frayed that might have kept many of them in unhappy marriages.
Greater societal tolerance of divorce. Boomers grew up when divorce was losing the stigma it had for earlier generations. Now, instead of “until death do us part,” many consider the vow to be “until we grow apart.” Linda Leitz, a Colorado Springs, Colo., planner who specializes in helping people during and after divorce, told me, “It may be the new normal for baby boomers to have three marriages: a starter marriage, a family marriage to raise kids and a golden years marriage.”
Previous divorces. Splitting up may not seem so scary for folks who have already been through it. According to Brown and Lin, the divorce rate for remarriages is 2.5 times the rate for first marriages. When I mentioned this to Barbara Shapiro, a CFP and certified divorce financial analyst who heads HMS Financial Group in Dedham, Mass., she observed, “I think the stresses of blended families can greatly contribute to these breakups. ‘Don’t yell at my kid!’ or ‘Mind your own business!’ or ‘You’re not my mother!’ can be very destructive to couples who don’t have a long enough history together to weather the storm.”
WHAT ABOUT THE KIDS?
There’s a joke about a client couple in their 80s who come into their advisor’s office and announce that after more than 50 years of marriage, they’re getting a divorce. “Why now, after all this time?” asks the stupefied advisor. One of them answers, deadpan (pun intended): “We wanted to wait till the children died.”
That bit of black humor touches on the reason why many boomers wait until their older years before divorcing. Advisor Shapiro’s clients often hold off on divorcing unfaithful husbands until the children are on their own. She told me, “One woman said, ‘I’ve put up with this for years. Now the kids are grown, and I don’t have to put up with it any more.’”
If the nest is slow to empty, it can prolong the period that spouses feel they have to stay together. Today’s “boomerang kids” who move back home after failing to find jobs add to the stress and frustration of parents who are unhappy together.
But as advisor Leitz notes, kids aren’t a factor in many boomer marriages. “We’re less likely to have children, or as many children, as our parents,” she points out. Since childlessness allows both husband and wife to work, divorce may still be hard on them, but perhaps not as financially and emotionally catastrophic as it could be.
‘WE’RE THINKING OF GETTING A DIVORCE’
If a client couple tells you they’re considering splitting up, how do you react?
“If a client voices that they are thinking of divorce, I would probably take them out to lunch to discuss it,” says advisor Shapiro, who helps divorcing clients make what she calls “rational decisions during irrational times.”
In one case, instead of concurring with a client’s urge to split up, she suggested the couple live parallel lives. “If he’s working, then I may encourage a non-working spouse to fill whatever the void is—get a job, pursue a new interest, make new friends, take up a hobby—to become more self-sufficient and depend less on the relationship to fill them up.” She adds quickly, “I’m not suggesting an affair.”
Unlike Shapiro, who has teaching, coaching and counseling skills in addition to holding a CFP and being a certified divorce financial analyst, some advisors may feel uncomfortable giving such direct advice. But helping someone who’s contemplating divorce to explore other options is a service that can solidify the client connection over the long term.