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Gray divorce can be financially devastating — especially for women

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By Jessica Hall

After 25 years of marriage, Vicki Hickok found herself going through a divorce in 2015 at 55 years old that left her without the means to afford the expensive town in western Washington state where she had lived with her husband. 

Although she had previously retired, she returned to the workforce after the divorce at the U.S. Postal Service to make ends meet. She eventually moved to Mexico for the lower cost of living and better lifestyle with just three suitcases and her dog. 

“I’ve never looked back,” Hickok said, who is now remarried and lives in Bucerias, Mexico.

Hickok’s not alone in divorcing after age 50. 

In total, 36% of people who are getting divorced are over the age of 50, according to Susan Brown, professor of s ociology and director of the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. 

Another finding in April 2021, from the U.S. Census Bureau said that 34.9% of all Americans who got divorced in the previous calendar year were aged 55 or older. That was more than twice the rate of any other age group surveyed.

So-called “gray divorce” can be financially devastating, especially for women. Older women who experience a divorce see their standard of living decline by 45%. That’s much more severe than for men, who see a decline of 21%, said Brown, who is also the co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research .

“For older adults, gray divorce is not something they can recover from quickly. From an economic standpoint, there’s less time to recoup the losses,” Brown said. “If you’re divorcing at 60 or 65, your ability to work much longer is hampered. It’s much more difficult to bounce back.” 

After a later-in-life divorce, 27% of women live below the federal poverty guidelines, compared with 14% of men, Brown said. 

“The economic hit for women is much harder than for men,” Brown added. “The gender gap in earnings later in life is larger. And women may have lower paying jobs because they chose jobs with more flexibility to allow caretaking for children or parents, or they were out of the workforce and now have to find a job upon divorce.”

While assets likely get split 50-50 in a divorce, women historically tend to earn less than men and therefore have less ability to recover. 

“Divorce is a financially devastating situation — 50% of the assets, 50% of the income. It’s just math,” said CiCi Van Tine, a divorce attorney with Davis Malm & D’Agostine in Boston. “What happens when your runway to recover is less? The advice to ‘go get a job’ doesn’t work for someone who hasn’t worked before or has only worked ‘mom hours.’ It’s difficult to get a job for these people.” 

Social Security alone is not enough to prevent these women from falling into poverty. Women who experienced a gray divorce, on average, can count on less than $14,000 per year from Social Security, Bowling Green researchers found. 

Of course, if you were married 10 years or longer, you can claim Social Security benefits from an ex-spouse. More than half of gray divorces occur to couples in first marriages, Brown said, with more than 55% of gray divorces involving a split for couples who had been married more than 20 years.

Read: You can claim spousal Social Security benefits even if you’re divorced — here’s how

“The Social Security system was designed until death do you part,” Brown said. 

The advice to “move on” is only helpful to a point. Only one-quarter of women will remarry or live with a partner after a divorce after age 50, Bowling Green researchers found.

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