“Salt and Pepper” Divorces: The Fight for Control When Long-Term Couples Split (Part II)

Stacy D. Phillips 

This is the second in a two-part series examining how older couples experience divorce and separation differently through the prism of the six big issues that I identified in my book, Divorce: It’s All About Control—How to Win the Emotional, Psychological, and Legal Wars, as the main causes of divorce. 

As previously mentioned, I have seen much interest in so-called “gray” divorces, or marriages that end after 25 to 35 years. I personally prefer the term “salt and pepper” divorce because most often these couples are not considered elderly. With the COVID-19 delta variant causing renewed uncertainty, many older couples are once again facing exacerbated tensions. In Part I of this series, I discussed how “salt and pepper” couples approach three of the main causes of divorce—money, property, and wealth; children; and health. In Part II, I focus on loss of love/intimacy; growth; and fear. 

Loss of Love/Intimacy 

A common cause of salt and pepper divorces is a waning desire for intimacy after many years together. Midlife crises and health issues are often at the root of these break-ups. A common divorce stereotype is that older men will ask for a divorce when they already have someone else who is more exciting and willing to take care of them. For women, the divorce stereotype is that their husbands have grown older faster than they have, and they have more energy later in life. For both men and women, there could be affairs that their spouses have suspected or known about for years, but have put off confronting or seeking divorce until they have built the confidence to do so. As the COVID-19 pandemic has lasted longer than anyone anticipated, many people in marriages where one spouse is satisfied with a more celibate relationship and the other is not, may have realized that life is too short to live this way. They are propelled and compelled to seek a divorce in order to spend their remaining years either contently alone or in an intimate relationship with someone new. 

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“Salt-and-Pepper” Divorces: The Fight for Control When Long-Term Couples Split (Part I)

Stacy D. Phillips 

With the recent announcement that Bill and Melinda Gates, one of the wealthiest couples in the world, were divorcing after nearly three decades of marriage, I have seen an increase in interest in what the media refers to as “gray” divorces, or marriages that end after 25 to 35 years. Personally, I prefer the term “salt-and-pepper” divorce because most often these couples are not considered elderly. After more than a year of limited mobility and social distancing, many couples have felt that they have spent practically another lifetime together at home. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many couples closer together, but for others it has exacerbated tensions that have existed under the surface, often for decades. With time and soul-searching over the past year and especially now that COVID-19 restrictions are now being relaxed and lifted across the U.S. and much of the world, many older couples are building the courage to address the six big issues that I identified in my book, Divorce: It’s All About Control – How to Win the Emotional, Psychological, and Legal Wars, as the main causes of divorce. In Part I of this two-part series I discuss how salt-and-pepper couples approach three of these issues—money, property, and wealth; children; and health. Part II will focus on loss of love/intimacy; growth; and fear.

Money, Property, and Wealth

One of the biggest distinctions of salt-and-pepper (and gray) divorces is that couples in long-term marriages are more likely to divorce at or near the end of accumulating income from their prime working years. When older couples approach divorce and separation, each spouse is acutely aware that after the split, whatever assets are left may have to last them the rest of their lives. In particular, a spouse who was the non-earner during the marriage may not be able to force the other spouse who is at or past common retirement age to continue working to pay spousal support. What may be more likely to be left for salt-and-pepper couples that are no longer earning income from working is passive income from assets that are subject to capital gains tax if sold. In light of the impact of COVID-19, there are many couples who have income tied to previously cash-producing real estate assets that have taken a hit due to rent abatement, rent freezes, and eviction moratoriums. When the lockdowns began at the beginning of the pandemic, I noticed that many people either held off on initiating a divorce or filed for divorce because lower asset valuations were to their advantage. Now that the pandemic restrictions are ending and businesses are reopening, I am still seeing a good number of people waiting to see if the economy and the value of their assets will fully stabilize before pursuing a divorce, or they are jumping on the depressed economy to try and extract a valuation advantage.

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Defining your Marital Lifestyle in Divorce Post-Pandemic: Longing for (or Moving on from) the Life that Once Was

Alan R. Feigenbaum

In one of its hallmark songs, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band AC/DC proclaimed, “money talks.” For better or for worse, those two words find a way of ringing true in many facets of life, and contested divorce litigation is no exception. Yet during the year-long, or perhaps longer now, pandemic, if you find yourself in the middle of a divorce proceeding you might be questioning whether or not money talks anymore or has instead been tucked away until a time when normal life resumes.

The subject of your lifestyle during a marriage is bound to come up in divorce when you are quarreling over issues of child support and/or spousal support. For example, in the child support arena, when considering whether or not to award support above New York’s statutory cap for combined parental income, the law in New York considers the standard of living that a child would have enjoyed had the family unit not dissolved.

Then there is spousal support, which your lawyer will tell you, if being up front can be an ocean of uncertainty. You may have heard that New York, some years ago, established formulas for determining spousal support. But in high-net-worth cases, with incomes above and beyond the statutory cap for spousal support, those formulas can quickly give way to a focus on many factors including, you guessed it, the marital lifestyle (a fancy way of describing how you and your family lived economically during your marriage).

What do we mean by living, or lifestyle? What type of residence do you have and in what neighborhood? Do your children attend public or private schools? Does your family vacation, and if so, how many times per year and at what cost? Where do you dine out, and how frequently? At which stores do you buy clothing for you and your children? Do you belong to a gym or other private club, and if so, is it “high end”? Or, maybe you have a personal trainer at home?

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Keeping Your Sanity during a COVID Custody Fight

Stacy D. Phillips

As we mark one year since the first shelter-in-place orders were imposed, there is practically no part of divorce that the COVID-19 pandemic has not impacted. In too many ways, the frustration at our lack of control over the events of this last year and now well into the first quarter of 2021 has exacerbated the emotional, psychological, and legal wars of separation and divorce. A particularly active battlefield where control becomes a constant tug-of-war has been the highly charged disagreements that come with fights over child custody.

With tensions as high as ever, I have taken note that many of my divorce cases that would normally settle are not settling—not just the ones involving custody. Moreover, as tensions are higher than usual, parents who are separating or divorcing are now, all too often, using disagreements over their children to score points against their ex-partner. Making matters worse, these unhappy couples have often been stuck in the same household without the normal boundaries between life and work or they may be living in separate homes but do not look at COVID-19 protections the same way, causing an accelerated unraveling.

Keeping sane during a custody fight is not easy, and especially so during COVID-19. It requires positive thinking, setting aside pettiness, and finding creative solutions that are in the best interest of your children. Despite the ongoing uncertainties of managing this school year, securing vaccine appointments for loved ones, and worrying about our health and safety, there are many ways to keep your cool during one of life’s most stressful and unfortunate circumstances.

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Promoting Peace during the Holidays

Stacy D. Phillips

There is almost nothing else that brings underlying family tensions to a head quite like the holidays. For separating, separated, divorcing, and divorced families, this time of year can be highly emotional and stressful. The primary reasons that personal relationships break down—mismatched value systems and power struggles over things big and small—are often on display at the Thanksgiving table or when planning Christmas/Hanukkah gifts for your children or in deciding which side of the family to visit at which time.

We can anticipate that, much like everything else 2020 has impacted, this year’s family in-person and virtual gatherings may be uniquely high on tension and disagreement. Many people are anxious about their health amid another rise in COVID-19 cases or uncertainties surrounding their personal financial situations in the current economy. Add in the political and social unrest in this country and you have a recipe for feeling like you have a lack of control over what is happening in your world.

Like addressing the emotional, psychological, and legal wars of separation and divorce, finding peace during the holidays often requires responding rather than reacting, positive thinking instead of negative strategies, and finding new peaceful solutions to ongoing differences. Despite the political, cultural, and public health uncertainties, there are many opportunities to making the 2020 holiday season a peaceful one.

Reach Out & Be Kind

At the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns, people were more likely to empathize with each other, make sacrifices, and reach out to each other with a heightened sense of humanity to say: “we are in this together.” Now that we are nearly nine months into the pandemic, many people, especially those that are separating and divorcing, are fighting over things that are not quite earth-shattering and hating each other with a vengeance.

This holiday season remember that people are struggling, whether impacted by COVID-19 or those who lost work. In addition to focusing on what you can do for others by making that extra donation to the food bank and expressing gratitude to doctors, nurses, first responders, and essential workers, call and check in on family and friends. They may be having a tougher time with loneliness than anyone realizes. When you look back on this time many years from now, you will want to remember the holidays as a positive time when you could focus on others and set aside the strife.

Cooperate to Make New (or Simplify Old) Traditions

If there was ever a year to be flexible and cooperate with your ex for the good of your children, 2020 is it. Many of us will experience frustration that, because of COVID-19, we cannot have the same large family gatherings or have our children easily split time between both parents.

Although nobody knows when the pandemic will end, we will all have to find patience and adapt to the current circumstances. That does not mean old traditions need to end and we should resign ourselves to being alone. Instead, there are new opportunities to see relatives from both your and your ex’s families via Zoom and find creative ways to share time with old friends and family members and carry out old traditions together virtually. Make time for your ex’s family and in-laws if you can, even if only online. When deciding who to have at your table (safely!) or which relatives to invite to Zoom, be as inclusive as possible.

Take Care of Yourself COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on us physically and psychologically. Not only has the disease directly impacted many of us, but we have all been hit with fatigue and stress. Many of us have been rightfully concerned about others and may be caring for someone else during this time, but do not forget that your physical and mental health matters too. Find time to engage in more of what you love about the holidays. Continue to get regular and proper exercise to vent frustration, tune up your mind and body, and give yourself more energy to face challenges. When you have taken care and control of yourself, it is that much easier to let the happiness and positive energy from the holidays happen.

Mediation for Family Law Disputes—Is It a Cure-All, a Band-Aid Precursor to Litigation, or Something in Between?

Alan R. Feigenbaum

If during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic you, and/or your spouse, have made the decision to part ways, then there’s a good chance you have considered or read about mediation as a potential way forward. Mediation, including online mediation, is seemingly all the buzz right now. It has become an integral part of the judicial systems in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Think before you act. All else being equal—if you were asked whether you prefer to “mediate” or “litigate,” you probably would choose the former. What you should consider, carefully, is whether or not your family dynamic and your relationship with your soon-to-be ex-spouse is suitable for mediation.

What are the factors to consider when you make your decision? What due diligence should you undertake before saying “yes” or “no” to mediation? Cost is an obvious factor, but let’s dig deeper. Start by asking a simple question: how did your spouse treat you during the marriage—emotionally, financially, as a parent, as a partner? If the answer to all of these categories is resoundingly awful, then think twice about mediation. It may be emotionally taxing to dredge up what has played out during your marriage when you make this calculus, but the alternative is to dive right into the process, cold. Continue reading

Amid the Pandemic: Families Coming Together … and Coming Apart

Marilyn B. Chinitz

In times of crisis, families typically come together. People decide to avoid unnecessary battles. Arguments are fewer. But that is not the case for unhappy and divorcing couples, many of whom now are experiencing extraordinarily challenging times. Family tensions are exacerbated as COVID-19 continues to impact lives in previously unimaginable ways. Some form of social distancing, working from home, limited mobility, and caring for children full-time without traditional support systems, are all now the norm and will be for the foreseeable future.

Concerns for Our Children.

Children of all ages are experiencing tremendous anxiety from the significant changes in their daily lives—the isolation, the new cleaning/sanitizing routines, and fears created by the pandemic. Limited access to parks, playgrounds, and friends coupled with distance learning, media consumption, and time-filling crafts and games can be sustained for a few weeks, but not for months on end. In divorced or separated families, many children are not spending time with their non-custodial parent because it would present too much of a risk for contracting the virus. Children are understandably confused, upset, depressed, and unfamiliar with how to process their feelings.

Parents’ Challenges.

Parents are juggling and multitasking like never before. They are expected to work from home while at the same time providing full-time care for their children, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and supervising online studies and extracurricular lessons. Some parents are doing this alone, without help from anyone—no tutor, spouse, or domestic helper. Simply put: parents are stressed and overwhelmed. They, too, are socially isolated and cannot depend on their normal diversions. Activities they once took for granted—dinner with friends, in-person meetings with a therapist, workouts in the gym, or myriad other traditional methods of dealing with stress—are now out of reach. Additionally, isolation presents parents with some of the unhealthiest of options for dealing with stress: binge eating and alcohol consumption. Moreover, many non-custodial parents find themselves in the untenable position of missing their children as a result of the coronavirus prohibiting travel and visits.

Divorcing Couples.

Those in the middle of divorce litigation are in uncharted waters. Their dispute resolution forum is not available to them. The courts are, for the most part, closed or only hearing cases involving an emergency, such as danger to a child. While some judges are conducting conference calls/Zoom sessions with attorneys, the fact of the matter is that the family courts are not available and will not be for the near future.

One of the most concerning aspects in all of this is the decrease in the value of marital assets—in some instances having decreased by as much as 50‒70 percent. Ongoing negotiations about the division of assets will need to be re-examined. Updated appraisals will be required, including revised business valuations and/or re-calculations of the transfer amounts from one spouse to the other.

And it does not stop there. Historic levels of unemployment, now a reality, are impacting the ability to pay support for the benefit of the children as well as spouses. Unexpected unemployment or the shuttering of businesses are examples of substantial changes in circumstances that will likely prompt countless applications to the court for downward modification of support obligations.

Considering Divorce.

If a marriage was falling apart and on the edge before this pandemic hit home, undoubtedly things will get worse with spouses together in a “lockdown” situation. We could be hopeful that cooler, wiser heads will prevail and that couples having problems can put their emotions and fears aside and either present a united front against these very challenging times or work out their custody and financial issues amicably. But this is unlikely to be the case. Although new divorce proceedings are generally not being instituted because the courts are focusing on emergency issues in the cases already proceeding, people are still at war with one another. Even in jurisdictions where filings are being accepted, do not expect to get any relief from the court soon. We are receiving multiple calls from prospective clients who want to understand what the next best steps are to terminate their marriage and divide assets during an unpredictable, unsettling economy.

Moving Ahead.

Many lawyers are now working with their colleagues to negotiate settlements and resolve issues in the interest of moving cases along, even though the courts are not available. More than ever before, it is incumbent upon the attorneys to assert leadership—and to step in since the judges cannot—to try to work with their adversaries to take a position that is fair and reasonable to both sides and build consensus. Otherwise, everybody loses.

For more on this important topic, please join Marilyn for her May 27, 2020, webinar:

Lunch & Learn: Successfully Navigating Divorce and Separation Amid COVID-19

It’s All About Control

Stacy D. Phillips

As a family lawyer specializing in high net worth and high profile cases for more than 35 years, you can imagine that I have seen it all. Representing many celebrities—often involving complex, high conflict matters—I have observed that whatever the salacious headlines, particular facts, and circumstances of each case, there is one important commonality: control.

It is a given that every case I handle will have its share of “issues,” many of which go beyond the division of assets. Frequently, some urgent situation or chronic problem creates a dispute involving the need/desire/obsession of one party to dominate the other. Neither gender has exclusivity when it comes to pursuing, possessing, and asserting control, whether during the marriage, the divorce, or its aftermath. The reality is: Control is prevalent in any relationship. And, when couples are jockeying for it, a legal case becomes a contest. All too often, contests escalate to wars because, by nature, human beings are competitive. Continue reading

Not So Fast—New PA Law May Not Shorten Your Wait to No-Fault Divorce

Mary Vidas and Michelle Piscopo 

Pennsylvania is set to shorten the time parties need to be living separate and apart from two years to one year, but will that really enable you to get a divorce faster?

Pennsylvania is a “no-fault” state for establishing the grounds for divorce. There are two no-fault grounds— mutual consent by both parties 90 days after the filing and service of a divorce complaint, OR living separate and apart for a period of two years. The grounds for divorce must be established before the court can determine the equitable division of the marital estate and enter a divorce decree. This week, the Pennsylvania legislature approved a bill to shorten the time period for living separate and apart from two years to one year and the bill is on Governor Wolf’s desk waiting to be signed into law. Once the bill is signed, it will go into effect 60 days later.

This new law has been greatly supported by the Family Law Section of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and the PA Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Often times, the party who will not consent to a divorce will do so in order to collect support for a longer period of time or simply out of spite (we know…hard to believe). The benefits of a shorter waiting period have been discussed and debated for years and most practitioners agree that the shorter waiting period will lessen the emotional turmoil that comes with a divorce and lower legal costs.

All in all, a shorter waiting period sounds like a good thing. However, this new law will only apply to divorce actions filed or to parties who separate AFTER the law goes into effect. While that hardly seems fair, it seems that the only option to avoid the longer waiting period would be to withdraw the divorce action, reconcile and then separate again. Not a very likely solution for most couples.

While there may not be anything you can do if you are already involved in divorce litigation to speed up the process, if you have been contemplating a divorce but haven’t actually separated from your spouse or filed for a divorce—wait! If you suspect that your spouse will not be so willing to consent to a divorce, the best thing you can do to avoid having to wait two years instead of just one year is to put the brakes on separating from your spouse. If you wait to separate until the new law goes into effect, you can potentially shorten your waiting time by a year. While not ideal, the benefits of waiting may outweigh staying in the relationship for a few more months. However, we would never encourage anyone involved in an abusive relationship to delay leaving.

For more information on how this new law may impact you, please contact the Philadelphia attorneys in our Matrimonial Practice Group.