Hi Ho, Silver! Away!

The Lone Ranger and Silver, 1956, credit Wikipedia

Hi Ho, Silver! Away!

Bill Hartley on late divorce

Predictably, Bill and Melinda Gates’ separation has attracted a great deal of attention: the eye watering size of their personal fortune made sure of that. Prompted by this the BBC4 Today programme interviewed a divorce lawyer. She explained that the demographic of her casework has altered. These days it’s mostly people like the Gates, in their sixties, who are seeing her about divorce. The statistics support what she had to say. As long ago as 2009, whilst divorce in other age groups was falling by 11% per annum, there was a rise of 4% among the over sixties and the trend appears to be continuing.

The lawyer went on to cite various reasons for this trend; couples ‘grow apart’, mortgages have been paid off and pensions assured etc. Anyone with divorce in mind can find a great deal of ‘advice’ available online. Interestingly the source tends to be lawyers themselves and who can blame them? Obviously this is a growing market and they want a share. Looking beyond, even the media isn’t impartial when it comes to the post divorce experience. A recent edition of The Times featured a fifty something woman, looking somewhat younger than her years, talking up the benefits of single life. Naturally it suits some people but there was little mention of the drawbacks.

Much of the advice available is silent on the economic and collateral damage which may flow from late divorce. Instead the theme is generally that separation and divorce will open up a whole new way of life. This needs to be viewed with considerable scepticism. Another law firm’s website floridly describes this kind of divorce as ‘a last gasp at freedom and self expression’. As if there are legions of over sixties out there craving the chance to sling on a rucksack and head for Kathmandu. The warm and cuddly term used by the legal profession for this kind of break up is ‘Silver Divorce’.

When researching the question of late life divorce it soon becomes apparent that what passes for advice is in reality marketing. After all lawyers want the business and if it lies in this area then they’ll do what they can to encourage people. In contrast, Saga also offers advice about divorce. Not being lawyers theirs is rather more impartial and doesn’t automatically assume it’s the man’s fault. Presumably Saga have also realised that the newly liberated will need the right kind of holiday to recover.

Talking of fault, one American law firm adopts a blatantly sexist approach on its website. Here, it’s always the man’s fault. Men are ‘having affairs’ or ‘abusing drugs and alcohol’. Its British equivalent might mention an obsession with railway modelling or fishing. Not that it matters, as the ‘Behaviour’ clause in British divorce law is very elastic.

Assuming that the more obvious marital transgressions are likely to show themselves at a much earlier stage and be a cause for divorce, then marriage as mere coexistence probably isn’t unusual. Perhaps if behaviour of this sort has been a long time in gestation, then reaching pension age brings it into sharper relief. Interestingly there seems to be no recognition among most sources that external factors might have had an impact. Men in particular often make sacrifices in pursuit of their careers, for example getting caught up in the long hours culture.

It takes effort to drill down and locate impartial advice. What’s there doesn’t make for comfortable reading and is unlikely to fit with the lawyers’ upbeat version. For example, one half of a couple may have no idea about managing finances. Differences in pensions may also need to be addressed. The overarching message if you can find it is: divorce hurts your finances whoever you are. The Prudential estimates that divorced couples are on average 16% worse off than those who haven’t taken this course. Armed with this cautionary statistic it makes one wonder if an attempt to salvage the situation might be the best course of action. After all it can’t always be the case that such marriages are irretrievable. It may take two people to make a marriage uninteresting and the person wanting out might usefully consider the role they played in reaching this stage. Afterwards no amount of evening classes or volunteering to go behind the counter at Age UK may improve things.

The most obvious change will be the loss of the matrimonial home, since it’s unlikely either party will be able to afford to remain. Couples can eventually grow to lament the loss of a large comfortable home full of memories, to be replaced by the anonymity of a flat. Then there is the collateral damage which can destroy other relationships, notably with children. As one commentator put it, they may learn far more about their parents’ relationship than children should ever know.

If life alone fails to turn out as expected then there is the over sixties dating market.   Unfortunately it seems to be full of divorcees rejected by their spouses, reduced to marketing themselves as interesting people who just happen to be available. Their presentational skills tend to be rather poorer than the lawyers who got them there in the first place. For example, those whose interests go as far as ‘nights in, days out’.

Often senior daters encounter the remnants of situations similar to the one they helped create. Anecdotal evidence is easy to find. For example, the woman who was (briefly) dating a man who had been so cleaned out by his divorce that he was reduced to living in a camper van. They would go out on dates in his ‘home’. Another was so desperate to get back his old life that by the third date he had taken over the kitchen of his new friends’ home, much to the dismay of her adult children. One demonstrated devotion (or desperation) by insisting on accompanying his date on shopping trips to the women’s wear floor of the local department store. Divorced males relate how a few dates can lead to a woman establishing a foothold by embarking on a cleaning frenzy around their homes.

A high profile divorce case has had the effect of illuminating a change in society which previously received little notice. Whilst there is plenty of advice available it should be treated with caution. Many of the sources have a vested interest. Failure to go beyond and consider wider, sometimes less quantifiable aspects, means those embarking on a late divorce might be walking out on more than they realise.

William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service 

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