Bill Gates and Melinda Gates split in May and it has left many people wondering, how does a marriage of 27 years break down after building a successful life together and overseeing one of history’s greatest fortunes? Attwood Marshall Lawyers Family Lawyer, Laura Dolan, discusses why grey divorce is on the rise.
On the 4th May 2021, Bill and Melinda Gates posted a brief joint statement on twitter; “After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage. We have raised three incredible children and built a foundation that works all over the world to enable people to lead healthy, productive lives.”
Prior to announcing their separation, Bill and Melinda Gates reportedly signed a separation contract (in Australia, this would be similar to a Binding Financial Agreement). The couple did not have a pre-nuptial agreement in place before their wedding in 1994.
Despite their looming divorce, the former couple have agreed to continue to work together at their foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Does love have an expiry date?
The split of Bill and Melinda Gates, a couple that always seemed to have a united front, may have left people looking inward and wondering how they can make their own marriage last when one with endless amounts of fortune failed. Although, “grey divorces” are becoming more common than you think.
The incidence of older couples separating is on the rise. Statistics in Australia show that the average age of people getting divorced is in their mid-40’s, and there has been a significant increase in couples separating after the age of 50. Further ABS Statistics state that over a quarter (27%) of divorce applications are for those who have been married for 20 years or more.
Every relationship is different, but the rise of older aged divorces can be attributed to a few different factors, including people marrying later in life, living longer, retiring later in life, or even changing careers. Entering this age group means that couples may potentially be spending more time together after years of working and raising children, and now that they are home together with one another, their differences in values and interests may bubble to the surface and create a sense of realisation which may have not been there before.
Locked into a bad marriage
Spending more time at home after retiring may not necessarily be the only issue. 2020 changed the way we live our lives, reducing our social activity and keeping us locked indoors. The pandemic created a perfect storm of uncertainty, stress, and fear, which we have now been living in for just over a year. It comes as no shock that COVID-19 put further pressure on many relationships. If a relationship already had underlying issues that were not being addressed, the COVID-19 lockdown directives would have applied additional stressors, pushing people to their breaking point.
In May 2020, Relationships Australia conducted a survey to answer the question; “Have the COVID-19 restrictions affected people’s relationships?”.
- 55 percent of people were challenged by their living arrangements during COVID-19 restrictions.
- 42 percent of people experienced a negative change in their relationship with their partner.
- Those who reported feeling very lonely were more likely to experience negative relationship changes throughout COVID-19. This was especially true for people’s typically ‘close’ relationships (such as those with one’s partner, children and friends), whereas people’s relationships with their neighbours, extended family and colleagues were less likely to be affected.
When sweeping it under the rug no longer works
In many cases, couples experience marital issues for a period of time and choose to keep it together for the sake of the children, only to separate once the kids have left home. During a period of the relationship, couples may be concerned about how their children will react, so they may hide their issues and focus solely on the children, in hope they are protecting the children from a broken family. It was once of the view that a divorce would leave an emotional scar on children. Arguably, this would not always be the case and, in many cases, staying together causes more harm than good. Children are very perceptive and “sweeping it under the rug” may not actually be masking the underlying issues.
When the years pass and children move out of the family home to begin their independent adult lives, it can leave behind what is known as “empty nest syndrome”. Empty nest syndrome refers to the grief that many parents experience when their children leave the family home. It is often at this time that parents are forced to face each other and are no longer able to ignore their issues or differences, and divorce becomes an option.
Whether it be due to social stigma or general ignorance, grey divorce is a desperately under-discussed issue and we must be more open about it and provide more support to our older generation who is suffering a sad reality.
It is a very common stage in life for individuals to be looking at what the future holds, it draws the question, “Once my relationship is over, then what?”.
How does the law decide who gets what?
No matter how long a relationship lasts, the same principles are applied by the Family Law Courts to determine a division of assets.
The court applies a 4-step approach to each matter:
- the asset pool available for division
- the contributions each party has made to the asset pool
- the ‘future needs’ factors pursuant to section 75(2) of the Family Law Act
- whether the division is just and equitable.
The considerations made by the court for older couples is the weight given to a number of considerations depending on the stages of life.
For example, in the case for couples in their 50’s or over, the contributions of parties made throughout a long-relationship may be seen as equal. In a traditional concept, over the course of the relationship, the husband would have been out working and earning a greater income whilst the wife was at home looking after the children, cooking, and maintaining the family home etc. Further, the courts will identify the age and health of the parties at their current age opposed to whether they have dependents or if they are eligible for child support.
In the case of Bill and Melinda Gates, an agreement about the division of the couple’s property, business interests and assets were mutually agreed to and set out in their separation contract.
What you need to consider?
If you are recently separated from your long-term partner, the best place to start is gathering information. Arm yourself with as much information as possible regarding your financial situation, for example what you own in your sole name and what you own jointly as a couple. Consider what you will need to start your life as a single individual, i.e. cost of living, food, healthcare, and any other everyday essentials.
When gathering this information, it will be useful to know where documents are located relating to your bank accounts, superannuation, tax returns and insurance policies. This information will be relevant when assessing your family law property division.
Living independently after divorce requires planning, communication, and knowledge. It is always useful to get independent legal advice before making any significant decisions regarding the division of property and assets.
Binding Financial Agreements
Binding Financial Agreements can be drafted during a relationship, after separation or after divorce. A Binding Financial Agreement can help establish a mutual understanding as to what will happen to jointly owned property and assets in the event your relationship comes to an end.
If a property settlement is documented by way of a Binding Financial Agreement, it does not require approval of the Court, and is still considered to be a formal property settlement. By settling your property division in a Binding Financial Agreement, you can avoid extremely costly disputes over property that can arise when you are going through a divorce.
Update your Will and Enduring Power of Attorney and review your estate planning urgently
It is very important to review your estate planning after separation:
- Your Will needs to be changed immediately, otherwise your ex-spouse may inherit everything if you die;
- You need to revoke any existing Enduring Power of Attorney to your spouse and replace it with a new one;
- You should look at any jointly owned property or bank accounts and sever the joint tenancy for property (bank accounts should be split into individual accounts);
- Change any binding nominations in your superannuation or death cover policies and/or in a Self-Managed Super Fund;
- Check on the control of any business entities, such as trusts and companies, to see if any assets need protecting from being transferred or sold.
Attwood Marshall Lawyers are here to help
Attwood Marshall Lawyers have a dedicated Family Law team who practice exclusively in family law matters. The team are well-versed at assisting clients with divorce, financial agreements, property settlements and estate planning.
We can help you understand your rights and obligations and guide you through this change in your family circumstances in a way that can help everyone involved move on as quickly and peacefully as possible.
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