Grey divorce – navigating a later-in-life split

By Kathy Rumleski, Contributor

Couples who have been together for many years sometimes discover that the traditional vow “till death do us part” is not realistic, and their marriage ends in what is referred to as a grey divorce, says Toronto family lawyer Ken H. Nathens.

“You see quite a few people in the latter part of life getting separated or divorced, and it can be for a variety of reasons,” he tells

Sometimes couples discover that after the children have moved out, they no longer have anything in common, Nathens says.

“It could be a case that the pair was not happy for years and now friction comes to the forefront after the kids are gone, or they no longer want to spend time together,” he says. “They may realize there are only so many years left, and they want to ensure they are happy ones.”

Nathens, partner with Nathens, Siegel Barristers LLP, says in some situations the husband and wife have different ideas about how they want to spend retirement.

“One of my clients retired at 55, and his wife wanted to keep working. He hoped to travel and enjoy life, and she was not interested in giving up her job, so they separated,” he says.

Like any divorce, grey divorces can be rife with pain and bitterness, but the breakup may be even more intense because of the years spent together, Nathens says.

“It can be that much more emotional if you’ve been with someone for 30 or 40 years and it doesn’t work out for life. Acrimony can set in,” he says.

Nathens says sometimes one spouse suspects the other has been wanting to end the marriage for years and hasn’t been truthful.

That can lead to questioning about what else they may have been hiding during the marriage, he says.

“There may be a suspicion the other person has hidden assets. The scorned party may find it difficult to come to an agreement,” Nathens says.

In any divorce, he says there will be property and asset divisions, but with older couples, there’s also the issue of ensuring there are sufficient resources to comfortably divide.

“They may have to work longer or find a job to make up the difference to retire comfortably,” Nathens says.

A divorced partner also needs to keep in mind that spousal support may not last as long with retirement looming, he says.

“They may have to use their support in a frugal manner. The courts do agree that people have the right to retire and spousal support may be reduced or end,” Nathens says.

Emotional and physical support are also important considerations in grey divorce, he says.

“You may not have the emotional comfort you expected in your golden years or someone to take care of you in the event of illness,” Nathens says. “If you expect to retire in comfort with a partner and all of a sudden you become ill and your assets are limited, it can be a very difficult situation.”

If grey divorce leads to re-partnering, Nathens suggests considering a pre-nuptial or co-habitation agreement and updating a will to ensure the children of the previous marriage will receive what you intended for them.

“You want to make sure the next generation is protected, and there won’t be a huge dispute upon your death between your new partner, children and stepchildren,” he says.

The best advice Nathens has for all couples is to have a contingency plan in place.

“Try to be as self-sufficient as you can, even if you have a good relationship. You have to live your life in preparation that things may not work out as you planned,” he says.

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