As an independent financial planning firm, we help people in all stages of their life plan for, grow and enjoy their finances. Recently I have noticed an interesting new trend among the clients we help through tough divorce decisions — approximately 60 percent are in what is being called “grey divorces.”
Grey divorces are among couples who are nearing or at retirement age. While divorce rates in younger couples have leveled off, couples who have weathered the storms of marriage for twenty or more years are increasingly making the tough decision to live their lives apart.
There are specific things senior adults can do to avoid making big mistakes during divorce at this stage of life:
- 1) Fix, don’t fight. There is a very positive, mutually beneficial divorce practice called the collaborative divorce process. Collaborative divorce brings both spouses, their attorneys, a Certified Divorce Financial Analysts (CDFA) and other specialists to the same table to discuss areas of importance. CDFAs help divorcing couples explore various financial choices before final decisions are made. Seeing the short and long impacts of financial decisions helps each side better understand the implications; in some cases, we’ve even seen couples decide to stay together!
- 2) Pay attention to pension plans. Pensions are different because they are defined benefit plans, not defined contributions. While defined contribution plans, such as 401(k) accounts and 403(b) accounts, provide the values on their statements, pension plans, such as IPERS and FERS, are future income streams for retirement.
There are two ways to value pensions plans. A “Benson Formula,” splits monthly benefits during retirement. Present-day valuation is offset with assets. Both of these options should be assessed by an attorney and financial team.
If there is a plan to split monthly pension benefits between spouses during retirement, it is important to protect the ex-spouse of the worker (the person who has the pension plan) in case of death before retirement and after retirement benefits begin.
- 3) Create a life insurance strategy. Most attorneys will only value life insurance policies for the cash value in the event it exists. However, some policies allow change of ownership so one spouse is the beneficiary on the other spouse’s life insurance policy even after divorce. In this case, the death benefit can be of value to replace income (child or spousal support or pension income) or to pass assets to heirs through estate planning. And don’t forget — life insurance death benefits are not taxable under current law.
- 4) Don’t overlook tax filing strategies for the year of the divorce. Couples should file individual returns for the year the divorce is finalized. Be careful of items that can cause unaccounted for tax implications such as spousal support, temporary orders, sale of investments, charitable contributions, withdraws from retirement accounts and child deductions, among others. Be sure to ask your CPA to review your divorce decree or settlement prior to signing.
- 5) Couples married for 10 or more years may qualify for ex-spousal Social Security benefits (which does not affect the working ex-spouse’s benefits). There are two basic benefits an ex-spouse may receive: spousal benefits and survivorship spousal benefit.
Spousal benefits apply when the spouse with social security is still living and their ex-spouse is retirement age and/or disabled. The maximum available spousal benefit is 50 percent of the primary insurance amount.
If the spouse with social security is deceased, an ex-spouse of retirement age and/or who is disabled may be eligible for up to 100 percent of the survivor benefit, even when receiving social security benefits of their own.
Overall, it’s important to address your own intentions and expectations of divorce. Will you have the resources and means to maintain the lifestyle you want? Too often I see individuals who believe their lives will be much improved with divorce — emotionally, physically, financially and mentally. However, sometimes the financial realities don’t match expectations when there has been very little — or no — earning income years.
As with any major life transition, your finances need to be part of the plan. Find a professional you trust, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. In cases of divorce, a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) can be a major source of support and comfort throughout the planning process.