Older women need to be part of the financial planning during their marriage so they're prepared to deal with a lack of money if a divorce throws them out on their own, says one financial expert.
“The most important thing women should think about is becoming more involved in the financial conversation before there is any sign of divorce,” says Laura Pilz, vice president and financial advisor at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.
The issue of finances after divorce is becoming more important to older women as rate of divorce for those over 50 grows. Divorce rates for this age group has doubled in the last 20 years to one in four—a trend that has become known as the "graying of divorce," according to a recent study by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University,.
“Women still defer to men in many instances when it comes to family financial planning and investments, even if they handle the checkbook for daily expenses,” Pilz says. “If there is a divorce, they are playing catch up.”
Women are frequently faced with debts they did not know existed after a divorce, including property loans and tax liens. The debts can put a dent in the money the woman thinks the family has and they can affect the lifestyle of the two individuals who emerge from the divorce proceedings.
“Some women feel they are guaranteed a lifestyle similar to what they have been living in marriage,” Pilz says. “In reality, they are guaranteed only a lifestyle similar to what the husband ends up with.”
A divorce means supporting two households on the same income that previously supported one household. There may be some money for an ex-wife who is over 50 from alimony payments, but there likely will not be child support because the children are probably grown.
Both members of the former couple will be facing retirement, if they're not already in it, and neither has much time to shore up a retirement account, so extra caution needs to be taken with any retirement funds that they split, experts say.
Social Security is gender blind as far as how it assigns benefits, but the woman in a divorcing couple often has a lower earnings record on which her retirement payments are based.
“What a lot of women do not know is that they may be entitled to spousal benefits through their ex-husbands, who may be the higher earners. Advisors should always counsel women to take advantage of these benefits if they have the opportunity,” Pilz says.
Pilz also advises women to keep their assets in their own name rather than putting their husband’s name on them at the time of marriage. That way, the assets are theirs if there is a divorce.
“Even in community property states, the woman can keep assets she brought to the marriage if she keeps them in her name,” Pilz says.
“Women need to be realistic about what they have. They can’t remain in the dark and assume the comfortable life they had in marriage is going to continue,” she adds.