Gray Divorce? Tips, Pitfalls & Challenges - Legal & Practical Considerations

The Netflix series Frankie and Grace managed to spin a well-known story: What happens when you file for divorce after decades of marriage, when your children are adults and you yourself are approaching retirement? 

Of course, not all divorcees go on to marry someone of the same sex, who also happens to be a longtime family friend, but some of the conflicts and challenges depicted in the show are similar for many older adults going through that process. 

The reasons for divorcing someone after a lifetime spent together can be multifold. Some people are just old-fashioned, and they still truly believe in showing their children an image of marital stability, until well into their adult lives. Others find new love, a new passion, new interests, which are incompatible with their current spouses.

But one thing few people stop to consider is how a divorce after 50 can affect their finances and, especially, their retirement plans. Of course, no attorney in their right mind would tell a client to stay married when they have decided they want out, purely for financial reasons. Though, it does take a very experienced attorney to help a would-be divorcee plan to minimize the financial risks of what can be perceived as tectonic plate shifts for those who no longer remember what it was like to be single. 

For my high-net-worth clientele in New York, when we talk about divorce and retirement, millions of dollars are often at stake, and none of my clients take these matters lightly. However, I have oftentimes found myself in a position where I need to clarify aspects of divorce that had never crossed their minds.

1. Divorce Can Result In Halving Retirement Income, With Harsh Consequences For Your Future Lifestyle

Private jets and vacations in the Maldives cost a similar amount for one or for two. With half the income, you may have to fly commercial or stick to the Caribbean, especially if you remarry someone who does not significantly contribute to your new household financially.

Moreover, dividing 401(k) plans and other retirement plans will usually involve steep legal fees.

You must psychologically prepare for all of this, or you will suffer emotionally as well as financially.

2. Don’t Lift a Finger Without Counsel from a Divorce Attorney

Handing over assets, writing checks to your spouse, all of these decisions can put you at risk for tax-related penalties, among other problems.

3. Consider Your Limited Time to Make Up for What You May Lose 

If you only have 5 or 10 more active years ahead, you may not be able to recover from the blow to your retirement funds. Like a handful of other top-tier attorneys in my field, I have developed proven strategies to minimize such risks.

4. Choose Your Battles

Legal battles are costly. Do you really want to spend $300,000 to make sure you can keep a summer house valued at one million? Because you no longer have decades ahead of you to keep making money, you have to understand that your resources are now limited, and you have to do everything to ensure you can maintain a certain standard of living.

5. Consider the Possibility of Future Health Issues

If you think you have 10 or 15 good active years ahead of you, you may do risky things, like giving up a 401(k) to keep a beloved piece of property. But what if you get sick, if your business goes bunk, if the whole market changes and you have to retire early? When you get a divorce as a senior, securing income may be more important than holding on to assets that may devalue over time, or which you will have to liquidate to maintain your lifestyle.

Needless to say, you must also plan for being able to afford the standard of health care you are accustomed to, because it can be pricey, and you are certainly gonna need it in your senior years.

6. What Happens to Financial Support for Adult Children?

If you as a couple have been providing for your adult children, these assumed obligations will need to be handled. Although a court will not mandate this unless your offspring are either in school or disabled, the matter of where this money is going to come from will have to be discussed at the negotiation table.

Although it is impossible to go through all the details and nuances of what a New York divorce might entail, I have covered some of the basics, and hope this input can help you get into the right mindset. There can be complex decisions involved, hold on to property or not? Keep, divide, or liquidate retirement accounts? Although I can tell you what is usually more convenient, each case is different, and these generalities may only partially apply to your specific case.

I have handled countless high-net-worth divorce cases in the five boroughs and come across every common and uncommon circumstance under the sun. Some situations have been especially challenging, but alas, expertise in my field of work is not built on easy cases where there are enough millions to go round and keep everyone happy ever after. I personally thrive on challenges. A grey divorce can be a big one, and my job is ensuring my clients can thrive post-split too.


Dror Bikel

Dror Bikel founded and leads Bikel Rosenthal & Schanfield, New York’s best known firm for high-conflict matrimonial disputes. A New York Superlawyer℠ and twice recognized (2020 and 2021) New York Divorce Trial Lawyer of the Year, Dror’s reputation as a fearsome advocate in difficult custody and divorce disputes has led him to deliver solid outcomes in some of New York’s most complex family law trials. Attorney Bikel is a frequent commentator on high profile divorces for national and international media outlets. His book The 1% Divorce - When Titans Clash was a 5-category Amazon bestseller.

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