“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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