website image

May 31, 2024

Understanding Gray Divorce in Maryland

May 31, 2024 - Family Law by |

Gray divorce refers to the phenomenon of older adults, typically those aged 50 and above, choosing to end their marriages. This trend has been on the rise throughout the United States. Several factors contribute to gray divorce, such as increased life expectancy, financial independence, and changing societal norms. That said, understanding the implications of gray divorce requires a close look at its causes, the legal process, and the unique challenges faced by older adults going through a divorce.

Causes of Gray Divorce

There are a number of reasons for a gray divorce. Consider the following:

  • Increased Life Expectancy: As people live longer, they may find themselves reassessing their life choices and relationships. The prospect of spending two or three more decades in an unsatisfying marriage can prompt individuals to seek a fresh start.
  • Empty Nest Syndrome: Couples often stay together for the sake of their children. Once the children grow up and leave home, the couple may realize that they have grown apart and no longer share common interests.
  • Financial Independence: Many older adults, particularly women, have achieved financial independence through careers or inheritance. This financial stability provides the freedom to leave an unhappy marriage without the fear of economic insecurity.
  • Changing Social Norms: Society’s perception of divorce has evolved. There is less stigma attached to divorce now, and older adults may feel more comfortable making the decision to separate.
  • Personal Growth and Self-Discovery: With age comes a desire for personal fulfillment and growth. Individuals may seek divorce to pursue personal interests, hobbies, or new relationships that align better with their current values and aspirations.

The Legal Process of Gray Divorce in Maryland

As of October 1, 2023, Maryland’s divorce laws changed to eliminate the need for fault-based grounds for divorce (i.e., adultery, cruelty, desertion, etc). Currently:

  • Divorcing parties can get what’s known as an absolute divorce after a six-month separation if they have lived separate and apart for six months without interruption before filing the application for divorce.
  • The court may decree an absolute divorce based on irreconcilable differences stemming from the reasons stated by the Plaintiff for the permanent termination of the marriage. 
  • Mutual consent remains grounds for divorce. If the parties have mutually consented to the divorce, this means that they have signed a settlement agreement that resolved any issues related to alimony, custody, child support and the division of property.

Unique Challenges of Gray Divorce

Gray divorce presents unique challenges that differ significantly from those faced by younger couples. These include the following:

Division of Assets: Older couples often have more extensive and complicated financial portfolios, including retirement accounts, real estate, investments, and businesses. The equitable distribution of these assets can be complex and contentious. Maryland follows the principle of equitable distribution for dividing marital property, which means assets are divided fairly, though not necessarily equally. Key considerations include:

  • Marital vs. Non-Marital Property: Only marital property – that is, assets acquired during the marriage – is subject to division. Non-marital property – assets owned before the marriage or received as gifts or inheritance –  typically remains with the original owner.
  • Valuation of Assets: Accurate valuation of assets, including real estate, retirement accounts, investments, and business interests, is crucial. This may require financial experts or appraisers.

Retirement Funds: Retirement funds are a critical concern in gray divorce. The division of pensions, 401(k) plans, and Social Security benefits must be carefully negotiated. Additionally, one spouse may be entitled to alimony to maintain their standard of living, especially if they were financially dependent on the other. It should be noted that IRAs and pensions can be divided through a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). This legal order is necessary for splitting these accounts without incurring penalties or tax liabilities.

Alimony: Alimony, also known as spousal support, is often a significant issue in gray divorces. Maryland courts consider several factors when determining alimony:

  • Duration of the Marriage: Longer marriages are more likely to result in alimony awards.
  • Financial Needs and Resources: The court examines each spouse’s financial needs and their ability to meet those needs independently.
  • Standard of Living: The court aims to maintain the standard of living established during the marriage.
  • Age and Health: The age and health of both parties are important factors, especially given the potential for increased medical costs in older adults.
  • Contributions to the Marriage: This includes both economic contributions and non-economic contributions, such as homemaking and child-rearing.
  • Social Security Benefits: Ex-spouses may be entitled to Social Security benefits based on their former spouse’s earnings record if the marriage lasted at least ten years.

Health Care and Insurance: Health care costs and insurance coverage are significant considerations. Older adults may face increased medical expenses, and losing a spouse’s health insurance can be a major concern. Ensuring continued health care coverage is a crucial aspect of divorce settlements. Planning for potential long-term care needs and associated costs is critical, especially if one spouse has a health issue. 

Other Issues: The emotional toll of divorce can be profound, especially after decades of marriage. Older adults may experience loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Support systems, including therapy and support groups, are essential for navigating these emotional challenges. Additionally, gray divorce can affect family dynamics, including relationships with adult children and grandchildren. Family members may have strong reactions to the divorce, necessitating open communication and sometimes professional mediation to maintain family bonds.

Gray divorce in Maryland involves unique legal, financial, and emotional challenges that require careful planning and professional guidance. Understanding the legal grounds for divorce, the principles of asset division, alimony considerations, and the importance of health care planning is crucial. Engaging experienced professionals, such as a knowledgeable Bethesda divorce attorney, financial advisors, and tax experts, can help ensure a fair and manageable transition to post-divorce life. By taking proactive steps and seeking appropriate support, individuals can navigate the complexities of a gray divorce and work towards a secure and fulfilling future.

Contact a Bethesda Divorce Attorney Today

At the Law Offices of Brandon Bernstein, LLC, we have extensive experience in handling contested and uncontested divorces and protecting our clients’ best interests in a wide range of circumstances. If you’re considering a gray divorce, contact us today.