Keith (not his real name) said, “I never thought I’d be married. It wasn’t something I really considered—that is, until I met Debbie.” For her part, Debbie (also not her real name) put it this way: “I was in a large friend group with other unmarried women, and that was fine with me. Then Keith came along.” Though Keith and Debbie might sound like two young people who found each other at the beginning of their lives, they’re actually both in their late 40s and well into the midpoint of successful careers. This is the first marriage for both of them.
Stories like Keith and Debbie’s are on the rise. A recent study conducted by researchers at the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University found that from 1990 to 2019, the rate of first marriages between people in their 40s and 50s have increased by 74% for women and 45% for men. About 10% of the total number of first marriages currently are between people in their 40s and 50s.
And that’s not all. Americans in their 60s and 70s are forming new unions as well, many as the result of the dramatic rise of “gray divorce.” In fact, the most recent US Census data indicate that, while divorce is actually becoming less common for younger age groups (falling by 21% for ages 25–39 from 1990 to 2015), among older Americans, especially those aged 50+, the divorce rate doubled from 1990 to 2015.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that marriage later in life comes with a different set of issues and challenges than those faced by people marrying in their 20s or 30s. For one thing, healthcare is a more frequent concern. Also, older couples are more likely to bring other relationships to the union, including children, grandchildren, and—though in the background—ex-spouses.
The financial ramifications of later-in-life marriage are also more complicated. Many of these revolve around topics already mentioned, especially with respect to children and grandchildren. It can be complicated to balance the expectations of the older newlyweds and their potential heirs for how matters of inheritance will be handled, now that a new love interest has entered the picture.
Older persons who marry also have more financial history that may require disclosure and discussion. For example, how much debt is each person bringing into the marriage? Speaking of debt, is there anything in either person’s credit history that the new spouse should know? Who will be responsible for which household expenses? What sort of commitments to ex-spouses, business partners, and other financially interested parties exist, and how are they being handled? Is one of the parties receiving spousal Social Security benefits based on an ex-spouse’s record? If so, the marriage will put an end to that.
For most later-in-life marriages, even if they are the first marriage for both partners, a review of estate planning documents is imperative. A carefully designed, up-to-date estate plan can provide answers and relieve tension around questions of inheritance, intentions for certain assets, and how the new spouse will be provided for in the event of bereavement. Existing wills, trusts, and other estate planning documents may need to be reviewed in light of the new relationship. Powers of attorney, living wills, and healthcare proxies should also be carefully examined to ensure they are current.
Both spouses should also review all insurance policies, annuities, and retirement accounts to ensure that beneficiary designations accurately reflect the new family dynamic. For example, if there’s an old, forgotten IRA account that still bears the name of an ex-spouse as beneficiary, the ex-spouse will receive the money upon the death of the account owner, no matter how much that may not have been the owner’s intention.
One of the most helpful things that older persons considering marriage can do is sit down for a detailed conversation with a professional, fiduciary financial advisor. The advisor can serve as an impartial third party, helping both parties to the marriage gain a better understanding of their current situation and also clarify their individual and collective goals, priorities, and needs. Professional guidance can go a long way toward helping the new marriage get started on sound financial footing.