Call them what you want – diamond divorcees, silver splitters or grey divorcees – but data show that older Canadians are ending their long-standing marriages in greater numbers than ever before.
According to Statistics Canada, the number of divorced Canadians over age 65 grew by nearly 80 per cent from 2010 to 2020, soaring from 352,000 to 630,000. That’s partly due to the overall greying of the Canadian population, but not entirely (the population of married individuals over 65 grew by only 45 per cent in the same period).
“I would say about every one in three people contacting me is a retiree,” says Holly Brady, a certified divorce financial analyst in Calgary.
Annie Kvick, a certified financial planner in Vancouver, has also noticed an increase in older divorcees.
“Often, these separations have been a long time in the making,” she says, “but people were afraid to execute on it. Maybe they’ve waited until the kids are out of the house, or maybe when they were at the office for eight or ten hours of the day, the marriage was all right.”
Given that retirees today can expect to live longer and healthier lives than those of previous generations, she says, the prospect of another 20 or 30 years in a relationship that’s winding down may seem daunting.
But grey divorce comes with its unique challenges and concerns, particularly around finances. That goes both for wealthier couples, who have to contend with separating a lifetime’s worth of assets (Bill and Melinda Gates come to mind), as well as couples of more modest means who may have little flexibility – or time – to generate more wealth for their own retirement.
“It’s pretty easy to tell somebody in their 30s, or even 40s, ‘I know things look kind of bleak right now, but you’re just going to have to sharpen up your résumé,’ ” says Jason Howie, a Windsor, Ont.-based family-law specialist and founding partner with Howie Johnson Barristers & Solicitors. “But for people in their 60s or 70s, this is a different story.”
That’s especially so, he says, thanks to today’s rock-bottom interest rates: “Often people who are older are understandably skittish about taking risks in the market. So people are basically living off their savings.”
That’s where a divorce financial analyst such as Ms. Brady comes in. She works alongside couples to figure out their mutual assets, liabilities and future financial pictures.
“I interview the clients to figure out who wants to keep what and why,” she says. “What does their future look like apart? Then we look at the budget and draw up a draft family property statement which lists all the assets and liabilities, and assigns them to the two columns, one per person.”
Provided they were accumulated during the marriage, that includes pensions, which are one of the most significant concerns for separating retirees. The specific laws on pensions and divorce vary from province to province (and with the type of pension), which means it’s wise to seek local expertise.
In general, pensions are considered assets to be equalized or divided. Couples are free to make other arrangements, but these should be considered carefully. Leaving medical benefits on the table, for example, can leave one party with a major burden, especially if they have pre-existing conditions and find it difficult to get alternative benefits.
Mr. Howie has seen couples with assets allocated to the primary income earner, while other assets, such as a house, went to the other.
“But lo and behold,” he says, “they show up on our desks years later because the wife – and it usually is the wife – needs financial support and the husband’s retired.”
This is not an uncommon issue among older divorcees, Ms. Kvick says. Women are often particularly disadvantaged when it comes to grey divorce, given that men of older generations were often primary breadwinners and may have greater financial literacy to draw on as a result.
“I recall an older woman came to me for guidance in the middle of her separation,” Ms. Kvick says. “She had to be the one raising the kids and her husband had been the breadwinner and managing the finances. Now he was running the lawyers’ meetings, talking about the investments, dictating things. My client felt powerless and was really ready to sign almost anything to end it.”
A lack of financial literacy can be disempowering to women who often find themselves in greater financial need in the long run – if only because they tend to live longer and often have greater costs associated with long-term care.
Another top concern focuses on estate planning: A 2020 TD Wealth survey found that the trend toward grey divorce is generating more conflict in families around how to allocate thinly stretched retirement resources.
“There is one case that I’m working on right now where the wife is worried that her husband is not going to support their adult child as much as she feels that he should,” Ms. Brady says. “But this is an extension of some of the conflict that probably existed for years.”
Ultimately, Ms. Brady says, the biggest question facing most silver splitters is whether they can really afford to take the leap, given their limited ability to generate more wealth after retirement. But like Mr. Howie, she rarely sees couples electing to stay together for financial reasons.
Indeed, some couples will even make creative financial decisions, such as sharing the house after divorce. In part, she says, that may be due to the relatively lesser degree of acrimony she sees in older couples.
“It’s funny,” she says, “because a lot of times I’ll sit down with couples who are so respectful of one another that I think, ‘Why are you doing this?’ They seem to be much more caring and amicable than younger people divorcing. It’s a different mindset: They don’t want to tie up the courts, they don’t want to throw a lot of money at lawyers, they just want to move on and live their separate lives.”