FREE CHAPTER from ‘A Practical Guide to Divorce for the Silver Separators’ by Karin Walker


When any couple separates it is unusual for both to be in agreement that the relationship has broken down and it is time to move on in different directions. More often this is a decision taken by one of the couple which the other then has to try to come to terms with emotionally.

Where the couple have been together for a long time (in excess of 25 years and often over 40 years) this is even more of an issue. The couple may have been in a relationship together for practically all of their adult life. It is entirely likely that one may have been the breadwinner and the other the homemaker with the latter being entirely reliant on the former for financial arrangements and security. The fear of having to face the later years of life alone and emotionally unsupported (even if that ‘support’ were more limited than perhaps was appreciated) can be frightening and utterly beyond comprehension.

Particular emotional issues for the ‘silver separators’ are as follows:-

  • The couple are each in a completely different place. One is looking at new horizons and a change in lifestyle whereas the other is focussing on retirement/grandchildren etc.

  • The difficulties experienced by adult children when their parents separate including the potential loss of a ‘home base’.

  • One of the couple may have had no involvement at all in the family finances and need to re-educate or rely on professional advice.

  • Expectations with regard to future standard of living and how this should be provided.

  • Will one or both of the couple work beyond retirement age and what effect does this have.

  • The impact of a new partner and a new family.

  • Possible health issues.

The ‘silver separators’ will most likely have married at an early age, probably because living together was not an option for them. They may have married for reasons which were unlikely to ultimately stand the test of time. They may not have become fully developed adults at the time of their marriage and their desires and objectives may not have been aligned. The arrival of children and financial constraints may have ‘glued’ them together, sometimes for decades. Compromise may have become the ‘least worst’ option with the couple running their lives often in parallel and sometimes in separate ‘bubbles’ with each occupying an independent world either at work or at home, joining together in the evenings, at the weekend and during the holidays.

For those couples who married because it seemed like the ‘right’ thing to do when they were very young and did not have many other options if they wanted to be in a relationship, compromise and acceptance of a situation is something which they will more often than not have embraced for a very long time.

In this age group, perhaps more than any other situation, the decision to separate is driven by one of the couple. These people will have more than likely changed and developed in very different ways over the period of a long marriage. As people move towards retirement age some become determined to rid themselves of a dissatisfaction which may have burdened them for some time. With children having moved into adulthood, perhaps with their own families, and retirement meaning the start of the final third of one’s life rather than being the ‘wind down’ to the end this is the time for a re-evaluation and perhaps change.

More often than not however this is a decision which is taken by only one of the couple, usually the one who’s working life has taken them away from home during the week and who therefore has been exposed to a different and ever changing way of life to the other. The other member of the couple may have become embedded in the community of the family home location and see the future as providing support to children and grandchildren and adopting a more leisurely way of life as a couple.

The discovery that your life partner, to whom you may have been married for in excess of 40 years, wants to bring the marriage to an end and move in an entirely different direction can be devastating and even emotionally disabling. The communication of such a decision can in itself have a major effect. Adult children, for reasons which will be expanded upon, often take their parents separation very badly as it can rock the very essence of their own security and stability even if they no longer live at home. The result can be an emotional ‘car crash’.

If you are acting for the protagonist of the relationship breakdown you need to explain to them at the outset that initially they will have to give their spouse time to catch up with their decision which they may find difficult or even impossible to comprehend. Although your client may have agonised over what they should do for some time before taking legal advice, when they do arrange to take that advice they will have made the decision and want to get on and implement it, not least because they may feel that time is not on their side. They may not be in a place to consider or comprehend the impact which that decision will have on their wife/husband.

How that decision will be communicated is something to which careful consideration must be given. This is something which may not have taken place when you first meet with your client. Probably you may want to have a draft letter agreed to go out from your firm before any discussion between the couple takes place. You need to show empathically but firmly that the relationship is over and try to steer the couple towards resolution of short and long term financial and other arrangements. This is not least because the system lends itself to delay and undoubtedly your client, now that they have decided what they want at this stage in their life will want to ‘get on with it’, They do however owe it to their spouse to warn them ‘face to face’ that they will be receiving a letter from their solicitor advising that they want to bring the marriage to an end.

Do bear in mind that, very infrequently, your clients will be cohabitees, living under the misapprehension that there is such a thing as a ‘common law wife’ and probably in a situation where all property (and possibly all resources) will be in the sole name of the husband. I have suggested that this age group tended to marry young because living together was not so acceptable, but very occasionally they will have opted for that arrangement. Where the children are adult so that no Schedule 1 claim under the Children Act is an option, the task of telling the spouse who owns nothing that they may be asked to leave with no capital, pension share or financial support of any kind, can be an invidious one. It is a severe but short conversation and of course the lawyer is likely to have limited further contact with their client whichever of the couple may have contacted them. If you are acting for the financially disadvantaged spouse do not have any misconception of how this information which they almost certainly did not suspect is likely to affect them and have to hand the details of other professionals from a more therapeutic background who can provide much needed on-going help and support.

Putting cohabitees to one side, I am alluding to the fact that it may, more often than not, be the husband who has decided that he wants life to be different to that which might have been expected and has decided to take the plunge and move in a different direction in a way that has permanent repercussions.

It is however perfectly possible that the protagonist for the divorce might be approaching the situation from a wholly different direction. The mind-set of this age group is quite likely to result in the establishment of a parallel life with one of the couple having an affair (or even multiple affairs) and initially the other nor realising or turning a blind eye but then eventually deciding that they will not put up with this any longer and have decided to take action. The emotional ‘fallout’ in the case of this scenario can be even greater. The person having the affair may want their ‘cake and eat it’ and may have absolutely no wish for their marriage to come to an end with all the financial implications which that will mean. The spouse who has decided ‘enough is enough’ may have reached that decision unwillingly, being encouraged by friends, family or even adult children, and be taking steps which deep down they would prefer not to have to take at all.

So from the point of view of the family lawyer it will be extremely important at the outset to understand exactly what the position is from the point of your client; how emotionally able they are to give proper instructions; what sort of additional professional support might be of benefit to them and how that might be provided and whether a tactical approach to the process might be just as important as providing sound and pragmatic legal advice.

Be very wary of the client who wants to be accompanied by one of the adult children to the first meeting with you. Try to work out the motivation for this approach and, if possible, suggest someone else stressing the importance for children of any age not to have to take ‘sides’.

Initial meetings with new clients in this age bracket can take longer than usual. In most cases on party will not want to divorce. Whichever of the couple is your client, this is something which you will have to take on board and work with. Even if your client appears to be taking the initiative they may be doing so very reluctantly.

Do also be conscious of the prevalence of what is described as ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ and other personality disorders in this age group which could have a major impact upon you as a legal advisor. This area is a whole separate topic but it is important to be cognisant of the possibilities and how/if you might cope with them.

Whatever the facts of the particular case might be, separating couples in this age group will be shrouded in an emotional situation which will require more than just your legal knowledge and skill to navigate toward a successful outcome for your client.

We shall look in turn at the particular issues which will almost certainly arise.