Divorce After Age 50:
Different Issues, Similar Heartbreak
by Cathy Corcoran
“My marriage ended for me when I found out my wife was having an affair,” says Jim G, a 60 year-old financial planner from Hingham. “I was totally blindsided. My trust in her was completely destroyed. It was a nightmare.”
Though he knew his marriage was at an end, Jim says he was shocked by how quickly everything happened. Soon after the affair was discovered, his wife of 30 years moved out of their house and filed for divorce. Jim was not only in emotional shock, he soon found himself having to assemble legal documents and fight for his financial life. “I could barely cope with everything that was happening,” Jim says. “It was the worst period of my life.”
“Divorce is a huge emotional event for anyone,” says psychotherapist and clinical social worker Diane Simoni. “But for people who have been in a long term marriage, it can be devastating.”
Simoni, who is based in Mansfield, says the issues that complicate the divorce of younger couples, such as custody of young children and college tuition, typically don’t affect older couples, but the emotional issues may be even more difficult. “In a long term marriage, both parties have been through so many struggles and life experiences together,” she says. “Now it’s all over, and people wonder if any of it was worthwhile. It can be heart-wrenching.”
Helen is a 61 year-old single mother, who lives in Hull. She and her husband knew for some time that their 25-year marriage was on the rocks, but decided to stay together until their second child entered college. “We both knew it was over, but when my husband finally moved out, and we started the legal process, I was surprised to find that I was so sad,” she says. Once she and her husband started talking with their respective lawyers, Helen says, “Everything was all about the money. I kept thinking of all those years we spent together, our three children, all that we’d been through, and all we could talk about was money.”
“Most divorces are about money,” says Attorney Cynthia Hanley of Mansfield. “Marriage is not just about family and emotions, it’s a legal entity. Divorce is the process where that entity is dissolved.” Hanley cautions that, though emotions may be running high during a divorce, those involved must try to plan for their futures and make clear-headed decisions about their finances.
She outlined the steps in a typical divorce. First, one spouse files for divorce, and then there’s a hearing to establish alimony, child support, if any, and other financial issues. Both parties must prepare complete and accurate financial statements that include salaries, bank accounts, and other assets, including real estate, IRAs, pension accounts and stocks and bonds.
At the hearing, the court establishes the initial financial terms. If the couple owns a house jointly, and one spouse moves out, the court establishes a mortgage payment plan. If one spouse earns significantly more money than the other, he or she may be ordered to pay alimony to the other. Once this first phase is complete, the husband and wife must come to an agreement about how to distribute their income and assets. They may come to this agreement on their own, with the help of a mediator, or through their lawyers. If they cannot reach an agreement, the case may be brought to trial, and the court makes the decision.
“Most people don’t want a trial,” Hanley says. “It’s very expensive and it’s emotionally draining. They want to get things done as quickly as then can, but it’s my job to try to prevent them from making hasty decisions that they’ll regret later.”
Divorce lawyers set their own fees, and a first meeting between a lawyer and client should include a clear understanding of the costs involved. “Lawyers receive retainers paid in advance by the client,” said Hanley. “At the time the retainer is paid, the client and attorney sign a written fee agreement detailing the hourly fees. The retainer is deposited into the firm’s Clients Account and the lawyer’s fees and costs are then deducted from the retainer when they are billed.”
Helen and her husband wanted to keep their legal costs to a minimum, so they met for six sessions with a mediator to resolve their financial issues during their divorce. “Every time I even sent an email to my lawyer, it would cost me,” Helen says. “We thought it would be less expensive to use a mediator.” But Helen says she often became frustrated with the mediator. “She wouldn’t - couldn’t - give us legal advice,” Helen says. “Her job was to get us to agree, not to decide what was fair or in my best interest. Sometimes, I’d ask her if she thought something was a good idea. She’d always say she couldn’t advise me. Our legal expenses were lower than many other couples’,” she says, “but I’m not sure I got the best financial deal in the end.”
Jim and his wife took a different approach, dealing mostly through their lawyers. Jim says he was especially bitter that an inheritance from his family was considered the property of the marriage, and his wife was entitled to half of that money. “I felt it was extremely unfair, and I tried to fight it, but that’s the way the laws are written,” Jim says. “When we prolonged the dispute, the legal fees kept going up. It became incredibly expensive.”
Jim adds that his two grown children were upset to see their parents battling through their respective lawyers. “Even though they’re in their twenties, it was very tough on them to see their parents putting on the battle helmets and beating each other to a pulp,” he says. “When we saw how unhappy they were, and how futile the whole process was, we stopped our fighting.”
“Most couples who have grown children are surprised to see that their kids are adversely affected by their parents’ divorce,” says Diane Simoni. “Kids feel guilty taking sides, and it’s never a good idea to use your children as a sounding board or to bad-mouth your spouse in front of them.” Simoni says that everyone needs emotional support during a divorce, and the places where people traditionally get support - spouses, children, other family members - aren’t there, or those people are embroiled in the emotions of the divorce too. She advises those going through a divorce to see a counselor, talk with a minister, priest or rabbi, and seek the companionship of others who have been through a divorce.
Both Jim and Helen attended sessions of New Beginnings, a support group for singles that's based in Norwell. The group began as a program of the United Church of Christ in 1986, when some members of the congregation realized that most parish support and services were geared to families. The group meets on Monday nights, and helps members navigate the process of becoming single again through divorce (or widowhood). Single, separated, divorced or widowed persons of any faith are welcomed to attend. Though they still meet at the UCC Church on route 123, the group became an independent non-profit organization in 2009.
Their brochure says, "New Beginnings is a place for single adults ...to share joys and sorrows, a place to talk, a place to cry, a source of healing and strength for those who found themselves single or single again." New members attend an orientation session on their first evening, and can then join any one of four group levels for subsequent meetings. Meetings are lead by trained facilitators, most of whom are divorced or widowed themselves.
New Beginnings Level 1 is for people who are in emotional crisis, usually those who have lost their relationship within the past year. Level 2 is for those who are no longer in crisis and are moving on with their lives and getting back into society. This group deals with the issues of living alone and making a new life with new friends as a single person. Level 3 is for those who are now comfortable with moving on, and focuses on issues involved in meeting new people, dating and relationships. Level 4, called Seasoned Singles, is for those who have accepted being single. They discuss issues they are dealing with or the joys of their new lives. Group levels meet for the first hour from 6:30 - 7:30 pm.
All groups then combine for a short business meeting and social time, and can then stay for a presentation on a topic of interest to singles. Past presentations have focused on financial planning for the newly single, dealing with stages of grief, and personal growth and development.
Cheryl Cormier Pimental, past president and New Beginnings facilitator, says that newcomers stay in a level for as long as they need. “Some stay for a few weeks, then move on. Others stay in a level for a year or longer.” Divorced in 2001, Pimental says, “When I first came to New Beginnings, I thought I was the biggest mess who ever walked through their door, but I can’t believe how much I’ve grown since then. I’ve built a new life for myself with the tools I’ve learned here.”
“When you’re in the middle of a divorce, it’s hard to believe that you’ll come out the other side and be happy,” says Jim. “At a certain point, I realized I could live in bitterness, or I could accept what happened and move on.” Two years after his divorce, Jim’s relationship with his adult children has grown, and he has a new woman in his life. “I don’t know if I’ll ever marry again,” he says, “but I learned a lot about myself and about relationships from being divorced, and from my time in New Beginnings.” His advice to those just starting the divorce process is to get emotional support from a therapist or a group, and to know that the divorce process won’t last forever. “There’s light at the end of tunnel,” he says, “and there’s life - a good life - after divorce.”
Helen agrees. “I’ve been through a lot, but I know I’m stronger for it,” she says. “I’m more comfortable with myself and with all my relationships. All in all, I’m much happier now.” She adds that women just beginning the process of divorce need to focus on the financial side of things. “I think most women know about how to deal with emotional difficulties,” she said. “We talk endlessly with our girlfriends, and I made some wonderful new friends through New Beginnings. They’re always there to support me, but I wish I’d paid more attention to the nitty gritty side of divorce, to the finances.”
“Massachusetts is a no-fault divorce state,” says Attorney Hanley. “The grounds for divorce are almost always ‘irretrievable break- down of the marriage.’ That means it’s not about who did what to whom, or who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. It’s about how we divide the assets of the marriage. Women need to remember that.”
Hanley focuses on the legalities and the finances, but she says she always recommends counseling and/or support for those going through divorce. “People need emotional support and they need legal support,” Hanley said. “When they get that support, they’ll come out stronger in the end.”
Diane Simoni agrees. “Older people bring a unique perspective to divorce,” she says. “They have tremendous life experience and wisdom on their side. Divorce isn’t easy, but people can learn a lot about themselves and about life from it. A good therapist helps a client to uncover their hidden strengths, reinforce their coping skills, and discover new ways to thrive.”
Resources New Beginnings United Church of Christ Route 123, Norwell (781) 659 - 1857 http://www.nbnorwell.org
Attorney Cynthia Hanley 76 South Main Street, Mansfield (508) 339 – 1400 www.MassDivorce.com
Diane Simoni Caring And Coping Well (508) 243 - 781 www.caringandcopingwell.com