Bill and Melinda Gates — known around the world as tech and charitable titans — are splitting after 27 years of marriage, at the ages of 65 and 56, respectively.
Credit: Alessandra Malito Market Watch
Divorcing at an older age has become increasingly common. This phenomenon, called “gray divorce,” could be the result of a few factors, including the lessening of a stigma around divorce in general, longer life expectancies and differing opinions on what to do with the rest of one’s life.
“Divorce is a major life-changing event from a personal as well as a financial standpoint, irrespective of net worth,” said Eva Victor, senior vice president and director of wealth planning at financial firm Girard. For people in their 50s and 60s, it can have even more significant of an impact as some individuals may no longer be in their working years with earned income, she said.
Bill Gates is the co-founder Microsoft and the couple is more recently known for their philanthropic work through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Splits like this garner attention because of the big names involved and the billions of dollars at stake, but don’t reflect what the dissolution of a marriage means for most people. In 2019, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, now 57, and Mackenzie Scott, now 51, divorced after 26 years of marriage, and after everything was divided, the parties remained among the richest people in the world.
This is not typical. A divorce is often financially devastating for a family — especially women.
While a divorce may give both spouses more freedom, but there is still plenty to consider financially when in the midst of this process. Many couples, especially when they have been together as long as the Gates, have much of their money commingled. Halving those assets — certainly the ones earmarked for retirement — could be detrimental to either party’s future financial stability. There are other factors to weigh as well, such as who gets the family home, what income they can expect for the foreseeable future, and if their expenses will overshadow that income.
The consequences could be dire. The poverty level for people who divorced later in life was around 19%, according to a 2016 study from Bowling Green State University, compared to 1-3% for married seniors and 13% for widowed seniors.
Even without reaching these levels, however, newly divorced people may feel unsure of their financial future in the aftermath of their divorce.
“The first step I always tell my clients is not financially motivated: Take a deep breath,” said Tricia Mulcare, a certified financial planner and principal at Homrich Berg. Beyond that, begin gathering the information necessary, such as bank statements, home title, any insurance paperwork and tax records. “Start to arm yourself with information and data.”
Instead of worrying about what their income used to be, soon-to-be divorcees should assess what their expenses will be like for them as a single individual, and if that’s aligned with what money they’re bringing in after the divorce. In some scenarios, income and expenses may appear equally split in half, but that’s not always the case for big-ticket items, such as a home, utilities or healthcare. There are still many uncertainties about what “normal” expenses might be, as the country still works through the effects of this pandemic, she said.
There are plenty of necessary expenses to keep in mind when financially planning, said Cindy Hounsell, president of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (also known as WISER). This includes healthcare, the cost of which increases as a person ages, and housing, especially if the family home is too expensive to maintain as a sole individual. Choosing to give up the home could be an emotionally-charged decision, but the alternative can be too much financial stress on the divorcee, she said.
Regardless of age, those dividing retirement accounts should use a qualified domestic relation order (also known as QDRO), which allows an ex-spouse to receive assets from the other’s retirement plan as part of alimony, child support or marital rights. With a QDRO, neither party will incur income tax penalties, Victor said. By using a QDRO, a spouse can roll over a portion of the retirement plan tax-free, the Internal Revenue Service said. Here’s more information about QDROs from the Department of Labor.
Individuals receiving alimony may also want to consider signing up for a life insurance policy using that money, Mulcare said. A former spouse pays alimony while he or she is alive, but that income ends at death. They should also review their estate documents, such as who they have listed for beneficiaries on their retirement accounts and life insurance policies, and what the objectives are for their belongings on their will.
Mulcare has one more recommendation for her clients stepping into a divorce: “Think about where you want to be.” This step could be difficult during such an emotional and overwhelming time, but it’s critical, she said. “You’re now in charge of your own financial future. What are your goals?”