In April, 2014 the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis published a monograph on financial status of older Americans. It corroborated a trend that has been evolving for several decades. Beginning with the advent of Social Security old Americans began for the first time to preserve and in many cases grow their net worth in retirement where historically, they had become dependent on their children for financial support as their earning years ended.
The Fed study reported on data last compiled in 2010 and found that by 2010, the median wealth of older age groups (ages 70+) were more than twice as large as the median wealth of a middle-aged family (ages 40-61) and close to 20 times as large as the median wealth of a young family (under 40). What made this data all the more startling was that it came just after a major economic downturn which typically would be expected to hit older investors harder than middle and younger aged income earners.
Another interesting piece of datum comes from the Center for Disease Control and was published in an article about “graying divorce” published by the Washington Post on October 8 2014. The CDC statistics tracked divorce filings between 1990 and 2012 among various age groups. Among those aged 34 and younger, the rate of divorce actually declined over 20 years. Among those over 34-45 it rose slightly. But once we look at folks over 45 the rates have doubled. And yes, this was true for even those aged 65 and older where a length marriage was once considered a sign of stability today more than half the divorce filings are by individuals who have been married 20 or more years.
While, there is no direct correlation to be had from these facts, as practitioners we see a developing trend. In a word, old people have money that young people do not. Younger people perceive that their parents and grandparents don’t really need a lot of the money they have. So when mom and dad find that their marriage is no longer working for them, a growing number of younger Americans are insinuating themselves into the economics of their parents’ divorces. A generation ago, children typically became involved in providing emotional support to one parent to allow him or her to “stand up” to the spouse. Today, children appear to have their own agenda; whether it is private school/college for their children or to finance a business or some other project. In some situations we have had clients express fear that access to their grandchildren may become a bargaining chip if the divorce does not proceed as the adult children would like. This makes an emotionally tense world, doubly so. Much as the first World War began, once one adult child decides to become a participant in a parent’s divorce, siblings tends to wade in either to thwart that child’s agenda or to introduce one of their own. Then the acrimony really heats up with accusations like: “Mom never worked so how is it that she is entitled to so much of Dad’s money” and “There would be more to divide if you hadn’t spent an extra year getting your degree and spent a month in rehab.”
If you are an adult child of a parent getting a divorce, perhaps there should be a neutrality compact early on. And if you are the mature adult getting a divorce, it may make sense to agree with your spouse that adult children are not invited to the party. It’s bad enough going through a divorce without bringing the entire family through it with you.