By Dr. Lynne C. Halem, Centre for Mediation & Dispute Resolution
The media is endlessly fascinated by the divorces of couples with long-term marriages. From Maria Shiver and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al and Tipper Gore, the celebrity divorced set, to demographers’ estimation of the significant increase in divorce and separation among the general population of those in the fifty-plus age bracket, the stories keep coming. In part the fascination is related to the breakup of long-term marriages. People wonder why, after so many years of living together, individuals would even bother to divorce. Adult children are among the most vocal, perplexed and often angry, they decry their parents divvying up of assets after forty years of marriage. Why now, they ask? What’s the point? And, too, are we now responsible for taking care of mom? Of dad? Others, more detached from the actual divorce, worry on a national level about the increase in the elderly population living alone with assets and income already diminished by divorce.
We, too, at the Centre for Mediation and Dispute Resolution, are witnessing a rather dramatic surge in baby boomers and even older individuals who are now seeking divorce. Since mediation does not, and should not, delve into the reasons for a marital dissolution, we cannot shed any light on the causations of this trend or, in fact, help to explore its implications for society or for the delivery of social services to the elderly with diminished resources and no partners, as caretakers. Our focus is different. We, as mediators, need to consider the financial needs of the soon-to-be newly divorced and the ways in which resources can be stretched to finance living in two households. It is important to recognize that divorcing parties need to be “smart,” to really consider the impact of their financial decisions in order to structure an agreement that capitalizes on tax advantages, that analyzes the impact of future changes and options. A “cookie cutter” agreement may be quicker and even cheaper, but in all likelihood it will not help to provide long-term protections.