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A surge of silver splitters are calling lawyers, calling it quits


The trouble between the 82-year-old husband and his 78-year-old wife had been brewing for a long time, but it finally hit its boiling point over a cup of coffee.

The husband wanted a cup of coffee before they headed out for his doctor’s appointment, said Dustin McCrary, a divorce attorney in Statesville. She didn’t want him drinking coffee, which he wasn’t supposed to do before an appointment. They got into an argument and “she walked out of the house and never came back.” She now lives in another state.

“I say this respectfully, but when he came in I thought, ‘This is absolutely the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,’” McCrary said. “Having to shelter in place, and the stress that accompanies being in the older age bracket has turned bad situations even worse.”

A year of staying at home has given people plenty of time to reflect, and for some couples more time together has caused them to reassess whether theirs is a marriage to last a lifetime. This can be especially true for older couples, either because of a looming confrontation with mortality or a lack of distraction from jobs and children, or both.

Even before the pandemic, an increasing number of older Americans were ending their marriages and entering new ones. According to data from the U.S. Census, the divorce rate among those ages 65 and older roughly tripled between 1990 and 2015, when it reached six divorces per 1,000 married couples. (Divorce rates for younger couples actually went down during that period, although they’re still much higher than rates for older couples.)

There are several reasons for the increase in such “gray divorces,” including the fact that the number of Americans over the age of 65 is growing rapidly, and the greater prevalence of women with lucrative careers that allow them to leave a marriage while remaining financially solvent. 

But the rise in gray divorce is also apparently happening alongside an uptick in gray adultery. Ken Peck, a Charleston, South Carolina divorce attorney, says he’s seeing allegations of infidelity more often in cases involving older couples. Usually this starts on the internet, but more frequently it’s been moving from the online world to real life.

Peck said that he hasn’t yet personally seen a big increase in “gray divorces” since the pandemic started, but he expects that the “dam is about to break.” Peck recently consulted with a 73-year-old woman who recently left her husband, who is in his 80s, for a church pastor. They now live together.

“She basically said, ‘I’ve been miserable with this guy since I married him. I don’t know how many days I have left and I want to be happy,’” Peck said.

And now the experience of the pandemic seems likely to make such situations even more common. Currently, divorce rates are actually down from pre-pandemic levels, but that may simply be a consequence of people waiting for the pandemic to pass before making any major life changes. If so, the sort of dam-breaking Peck envisions could be nigh. Plenty of marriages have come under stress in the last year, and pandemic-related isolation has also sparked a tragic surge in both substance abuse and domestic violence.

“A common thread in domestic violence is alcohol or substance abuse or mental health issues, and those are especially true in gray-haired divorces,” McCrary said.

Divorcing at such a late age can create thorny financial issues for attorneys to pick through, and despite the increasing number of dual-income marriages, most often it’s the women who bear the heavier burden in such cases.

Years of careful retirement planning may be totally upended, and oftentimes clients will end up having to significantly curtail their spending after a split. If either spouse has already reached retirement age, it can be difficult for them to re-enter the workforce (or in some cases try to enter it for the first time). And if there’s a pension involved, the parties need to find a fair way to divide it, said Sarah Bennett of Sodoma Law in Charlotte.

Five years ago, if people of retirement age came into Bennett’s office wanting a divorce, she would have been surprised. Now, they come into her office once a week or more.

“A year ago I thought, ‘Oh my gosh we aren’t going to have any clients,’” Bennett said. “But I honestly think that business has been booming, because everyone is at home together, driving each other crazy.”

A client’s age can affect how divorce attorneys have to advise their clients. People involved in gray divorces “think they know how the system works” but don’t realize the intricacies involved in dissolving a long-term marriage, McCrary said. Moreover, COVID-19 has stalled proceedings and older couples are less patient than their younger counterparts.

“It’s the gray hairs who are a bit more ornery, and the divorce consumes their every waking thought,” McCrary said. 

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw

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