Bill and Melinda Gates recently announced that they are divorcing after 27 years. Besides having to address their billions of dollars and their enormously influential foundation, this has brought attention to issues of a mature (or “gray”) divorce. Like many other couples, they waited until their youngest child is about to go off on her own. And they, like so many others, have to plan for a very different future. Divorcing later in life comes up more often than you would think. Here is but one example of one couple I worked with:
Renee and Jerry seemed to get along just fine. He was 60 and she was 55 – they were getting close to retirement age. They had one daughter who had already graduated and another who was about to start college. He was a teacher and she was an actor – her work wasn’t as steady (especially during Covid), but she made good money when there was work.
When we started working together, I knew that there were some things they would need to consider that might not apply to young people.
First of all, we knew that their parenting plan would look very different from that of a couple with young kids. They asked how much their daughter would be involved in decision making. It is clear that a senior in high school will have a lot to say about where she spends her time. As one of my old supervisors would say, “teenagers speak with their feet.” And, while I always think it should be the parents who make the ultimate decisions about parenting time, it was clear that the daughter would need to be involved in the conversation.
But I was also very concerned about how they were each going to support themselves – now and as they got older. We spent a lot of time talking about their budgets and about how they were going to make ends meet. We spent a lot of time talking about retirement, exploring when how long they expected to work, how they were building up their retirement plans, what they had saved already, and whether they were going to share their retirement savings. Clearly, they had less time to build up their retirement accounts than a younger couple would. We talked about whether and how they were going to share their retirement accounts, and how they were going to pay for college. We talked about the extent to which they expected they were still going to have to cover their daughter’s living costs after college.
Many younger couples decide to keep the house (or co-op or condo) until the youngest graduates from high school. Renee wanted to stay in the apartment, and we talked about how she might buy Jerry out. We talked about refinancing or getting the mortgage into one name would work, and how they would make the month-to-month payments.
It was important to both of them to maintain good communication. They’d been together for 30 years, and, while divorce is always stressful, they both wanted to stay friends and to honor the relationship they’d had for so many years. That was hugely helpful in their mediation because they were willing to listen to each other. I noticed that they were also very good at respecting the other’s boundaries. They had been through a lot of ups and downs with each other, and this transition from one home to two, and to a new phase in each of their lives, seemed to be one of them.
If you are thinking of divorcing after many years of marriage, you might have more in common with Bill and Melinda than you think!