Mediating Your Way Through Gray Divorce

Debra Filcman
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Couple on bench

As the divorce rate in America rises for seniors, mediator Nancy Fagan says it’s important for seniors to focus on the legal and financial implications.


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MySilverAge: It’s becoming so common, it’s been given a nickname: gray divorce. Today more seniors are divorcing than ever before. According to a 2013 study from the Center for Family and Demographics Research at Bowling Green State University, the uncoupling of older adults occurred in 2010 at twice the rate it did 20 years earlier.

So what’s behind this statistic? Nancy Fagan, founder of The Divorce Help Clinic, a mediation firm in San Diego, California, says longer life spans and a rising sense of female empowerment are contributing to the trend.

Nancy Fagan: It’s 85 to 90 percent of women who initiate a divorce. And I think, in today’s day and age, they really believe in themselves. They take a look at society and their lives, and they say, “You know what, I have a good 10, 20, 25 years left where I’m healthy. I want to get this relationship over with, and I want to live a happy life, one that I haven’t had because of my partner.”

MySilverAge: Fagan is the author of two books: “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Romance” and “Desirable Men: How to Find Them.” Upon release of these books, she says couples began flocking to her marriage and family therapy practice. She advises couples, before hastily ending a decades-long marriage, to consider the legal and financial impact—not just their emotions in the moment. 

Fagan: They need to understand what their rights are. So don’t just Google on the Internet what your rights are in your state because you’re going to find a lot of different misinformation. So contact a family law attorney, make sure they only do family law and ask them what your rights are. All of my mediators have their law degrees.

MySilverAge: Among the first practical considerations are health insurance and finances.

Fagan: If you are on your spouse’s insurance, you need to consider how you’re going to fill that void, because typically, by the end of the divorce, you’re no longer allowed to be carried under your spouse’s insurance. Now, with Obamacare, that’s another opening window where people are saying, “You know what, I don’t have to be strapped to this marriage because of my health care.”

And also finances—you know, they worked together for a long time to create a financial portfolio, whatever that happens to be. One of the key things to do is to write down a list of all your expenses, to have a really clear idea of, “Can I actually make it on my own depending on the sources of income that I have?” Write down every single expense that you have and make sure you have a realistic financial picture, if you can make it or not.

MySilverAge: Of course, family is always a primary consideration, even if your kids are grown.

Fagan: How is the family going to manage rituals and routines and vacations and holidays, etc. if we divorce? It’s a myth that adult children handle it just fine, but research shows that they have just as much trauma as a young child in a family. It upsets everything. They also say, you know, “What kind of relationship am I going to have with the other parent and both parents? How are you going to manage the time that you spend with the children?” Now, they not only have two houses to go to—the other grandparents and yours—they’re going to have three, maybe four if the other set of grandparents are divorced.

MySilverAge: All of these considerations can be summed up and considered through divorce planning, something Fagan and her colleagues regularly emphasize.

Fagan: You need to have a life plan. What is that going to look like going forward? How are you going to spend the remaining years of your life? I call it “sabotaging the divorce fantasy.” A lot of times, people have this idea that life is going to be so much better after they leave their partner. But what they’re really saying is, “OK, once I get rid of his irritating—or her irritating—ways, life is going to be great,” but it isn’t.

So you need to look at the reality. Make a list. What are the different aspects of my life that will change? How am I going to be impacted by that? Or how will others be impacted by that? And how am I going to manage with, handle those changes? They have to think about the ramifications, financially, of leaving the marriage.

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Publication Date: July 9, 2013