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Senior divorces? This lawyer has some tips

Attorney Raiford Dalton Palmer
Raiford Dalton Palmer
Attorney Raiford Dalton Palmer

Chicago-area divorce attorney Raiford Dalton Palmer, author of the Amazon bestseller I Just Want This Done and a similarly named podcast about dating and divorce, talked with Maureen McKinney about trends in marriage splits, including a growing number of gray or senior divorces. This is an edited, excerpted version of the conversation.

Why do you see gray or elder divorce as a major issue?

Definitely these days, demographically, and a trend in terms of divorce filings and the folks that seek us out as clients, we see an increasing trend in our divorce firm, STG divorce law in Chicago. And we want to make sure we're addressing the concerns of those people who I think of traditionally been underserved and under informed. The traditional divorce lawyer, market or business, is aiming at people 35 to 45 years old. And there are a lot of people out there getting divorced in their late 50s and 60s and older who have somewhat different concerns and issues. And that isn't being addressed very well.

Why not?

It's somewhat new and divorce lawyers aren't really paying much attention to that trend – even though it's in the news now, and it's people just really haven't I don't think have catered to that group of people, in terms of providing them with information resources that may be more appropriate for their position in life, for example, division of assets, alimony, you know, the circumstances situation changes, when people are either already retired or close to retirement. The math is different. The outcomes, the potential outcomes, are different. The issues are different from people that have, for example, young children don't have a lot of retirement put away yet, etc.

Why do you think the numbers are on the upswing?

We've never lived this long. And people are living long enough, healthy long enough to see that maybe they want something else in their lives, that their relationship is no longer meeting their needs. And in the past, when people would die in their 60s, they, they weren't in a position where they thought a divorce was possible. They thought, well, I'll just stick with this. Because, frankly, it's not worth the expense and grief and effort. But now people are thinking, well, I might live to be 85 or older, and I'll be healthy, longer.

So people are looking inward and they're deciding, maybe for this next chapter of my life, I need something different. And their needs haven't been met for a period of time. And they're looking for something else. And they think they have time and that it's okay to pay the expense necessary. They've made that cost-benefit analysis and decide it's okay to make an effort.

Whereas before if your friends are all dying in their 60s, you figure you know, what's, why am I worrying about getting divorced at this point. So I think it's really just a, there's a huge change, our lives are much longer, we're living better lives longer. And that is a radical change. It's only occurred in the last few decades.

And what is different for those who are in the senior years, as opposed to a more traditional divorce age?

They have concerns that are a little different. So usually we're not dealing with children. we're dealing with, we have adult children, we have grandchildren that we're dealing with. We've got people concerned about now that either one or both people are retired. So the way that they're looking at asset division is very different.

And concerns about alimony are different because of the way our law works. So for example, a reasonable retirement age for somebody in Illinois law is somewhere between 63-64 and 67.

I've done divorces where people are working, but they're older than that. So let's assume there's been a long term marriage, 35-40 year marriage, and somebody's working making good income. And there's an order for maintenance or what we call alimony and other states. Well, that person receiving that . This person legally could retire tomorrow, and there's nothing I can do to stop it. So a maintenance award that might have looked good to somebody who's 35 or 40 years old, looks pretty sketchy to somebody who's 75 years old, and their husband or wife could retire at any moment, which changes the equation when you're looking at how to resolve the case. So and then you got long term care issues, health insurance issues, things like that, just multiply.

What is the kind of advice you would give someone who is in a relationship that's ending and is near retirement?

So, if they're the person working it's so much depends on the circumstances. So I would, you know, there are a couple ways to look at it. If you're the person who might be paying maintenance, and you can afford to retire, meaning you've got enough assets and you figure you don't need to work full time, then, technically or theoretically, it behooves you to retire before a divorce, because then it's a fait accompli. And it's done. And you won't be paying any maintenance if you're actually retired, if you are, if you're interested.

But what I do tell people is I think people should if they enjoy working, keep working. You know this, there's a little too much emphasis, I think sometimes on divorced planning people tying themselves in knots in their lives, to try to get a better an edge on their divorce, when would it also want the way I will say it is, wouldn't you rather, let's assume you're paying support, and it's something under a third of net income, which is how the formula works in Illinois, wouldn't you rather make two thirds of your net income and have that money at your disposal to invest in stuff rather than not making any?

So that's something I talked to people who are normally going to be paying maintenance, they'll say why, you know, I want to quit my job. So I have to pay maintenance, while you're kind of cutting off your nose to spite your face. So it's so important to decide what your priorities are. But if your plan was to retire anyway, then there's no reason to wait. That would be my suggestion on that issue. Because if you're not retired, that's the status quo from the courts perspective. And the lawyer on the other side, the lawyer for the soon to be ex, their perspective is while you're working, so you need to pay maintenance, despite the fact that person says I plan to retire next month or three months, six months or a year, they'll say fine, then do that, then, and we'll discuss it at that point, where you're going to spend more money and time hassling with trying to terminate maintenance at that point. So if that's your plan, better to just do it, and get it over with and you'll be better off in a divorce case, if you're the payor, if you're the person who stands to pay support

If you're a person who making less income, I would urge that person to get some type of job that has health insurance, because health insurance is expensive. And after you get divorced, there's no guarantee your spouse will stay working, they can retire at any time. And that means support might be terminated, your maintenance gets terminated. And that's what was paying for your health insurance. And now you're burning through your retirement assets to pay for basic expenses. And that's not a good thing.

So assume we're getting divorced, that 65 or 60 to 75 years old, we've got a lot of life left to live, and expenses to pay. So it's a quality of life issue. And you don't have to work very hard to get a job that pays for health insurance, There are part time employment at major companies part time jobs, where they'll provide health insurance. And that's just gold these days. So one thing I encourage people to do in that circumstances, either keep working to maintain your health insurance and have something to do not to kill yourself. But keep working and generate that income because it doesn't reduce maintenance very much. And it provides a safety cushion. In the event your soon to be ex retires gets ill gets let go. And there are a lot of things beyond that person's control a court order that says they're supposed to pay maintenance, it's just a piece of paper.

What is the most common age or situation for people to split?

That's a good question. There's so many different circumstances. But I see three major break points for divorce or time let's call it groups of people getting divorced. You have what you kind of called a starter marriages. These are people married between three, five years and things just don't work out. They might have a young child or they have no kids, and they get divorced. There's the folks that are in the middle area, we see probably the most of them. These are people been married 15, 20 years, they have a couple of kids, usually a kid in high school and maybe in grade school or somebody in college and somebody in high school. And they're in their 40s, something like that. Somewhere between 35 and and 50 years old.

And then the third group or the the I guess you'd say the gray divorce people. But that's a pretty wide range. These days. I've seen people anywhere from, let's say 60 in their 60s to in their 70s. And the usual hallmarks of that are the children are fully launched. They've they're off away from the home. Everybody has time to focus inward again, the nest is truly empty. And one of the two people says to themselves, is this all there is and more than that they're not happy in the relationship for one reason or another. And they see a lot of life left ahead of them and think there may be something better out there. And they're searching for that. And they've tried for years they've maybe stayed together for the kids Kids, now the kids are gone, they're grown. And they finally have come to the point where their cost benefit analysis tips toward their deciding that the divorce is worth the gamble to get what they think may be on the other side.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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