By Woodnick Law, PLLC
As a family law firm in Arizona, it sure seems like our divorce clients are getting older. Parties in their 70s (and older) are ending their marriages with what seems to be greater frequency. While senior divorces involving first and long-term marriages are still relatively rare, seniors on their second and third marriages are opting to get divorced rather than spending their “golden years” in unhappy marriages. The sociological phenomena of senior divorces are affectionately referred to as “grey”, a term coined by the AARP. The trend has also caught the attention of Reality TV producers, who have embraced the notion that you are never too old to find a lasting relationship. And, not to be a downer, some of these “golden” relationships will end in divorce.
There are upsides to lawyering divorces for seniors. We (the attorneys) get a reprieve from catty fights over which parent is going to take the kids to soccer practice. Candidly, it is a relief to not have to deal with child-related drama. However, senior clients bring their own unique challenges ranging from the extreme, involving mental competency issues (e.g., dementia), to interloping adult children and complicated financial matters.
- Competency: This is an issue bigger than the scope of this article, but sometimes people are not cognitively able to manage their own affairs. The most common presentation in a grey divorce is a client who suffers from dementia. While the forgetfulness that comes with aging is usually navigable, if a client is incapable of managing their financial affairs, they might need the Court to appoint a guardian or conservator. Of course, that appointee cannot be the spouse they are divorcing, as that would create an insurmountable conflict of interest. For those with foresight, they may have executed estate documents, like a durable power of attorney, that governs who will help them make legal decisions (including the financial decisions involved in a divorce).
- Interloping Adult Children: This can include not just adult children with an axe to grind against their parent’s ex-spouse, but also posturing by children who know that their senior parents’ estate will eventually be inherited. While it can be useful to have adult children help their parent handle the stressors of a divorce, attorneys also need to manage boundaries to maintain attorney-client privilege and prevent adult children from pursuing their own agenda.
- Financial Challenges: Grey divorces often have unique financial issues. Imagine a client who has owned and operated a family business for decades. During their brief marriage, their spouse helped manage the finances and now claims an interest in the business. Not only would a business valuation be necessary, but there could be a collateral impact on adult children’s anticipated interest in the business, as well as spousal support obligations.
The Technology Abyss
Of course, some septo and octogenarians have no trouble navigating email and Zoom, but many struggle. In our post-Covid world, virtually everything in life and in the legal field is online. Having access to and knowledge about technology has become somewhat of a necessity in divorces. Both courts and lawyers have embraced video conferences, depositions, and hearings. Consequently, this has left clients without basic tech skills at a disadvantage in an already emotionally taxing environment.
Having tech skills as a client may require more than just being able to log on to Zoom/Teams for a video conference. For example, when attorneys want to discuss banks statements or tax returns with a client, we send it to them as a PDF or we screenshare via Teams/Zoom. This allows us to efficiently address concerns on specific issues and saves the client the time and money needed to print and manage hundreds of pages of records. Document sharing and redlining via applications has also become the standard operating procedure for law firms, but if we send the changes to clients who rarely use their email or who do not know how to open or download attachments, this can pose a significant challenge and be an added source of frustration.
To address these challenges, and ensure a cost-effective and efficient divorce, creative intervention helps:
- First, we assess the scope of the client’s familiarity with technology. Clients do not need to be able to able to program an excel formula, but we need them to at least be able to check their email twice a day and access their computer camera/speakers for meetings.
- ENGAGE A TECH GURU.
- For those seniors less tech inclined, we connect them with an IT coach who is skilled at assisting our older client population. Our trusted professional is Jeff Raben, and he meets with the client to make sure passwords are secure, printers are functioning, computer cameras and microphones are operational, and there is a streamlined process for accessing email and saving attachments to the computer that our client can feel confident about. While Jeff charges separately for his services, it is minimal compared to the thousands of dollars clients save by not relying on attorneys and other professionals to address technical issues. When we told Jeff we were writing an article on the benefits of having him on speed dial for our technology challenged clients, he shared:
“It’s nice to help someone with what is basic to me, but I realize it is not so simple to them. Helping older clients feel comfortable with their computer knowing that they have plenty of other things to stress about is very gratifying. I often get calls from their adult children, who are thrilled their parents can participate more in family events via their computer and that they can call me to stop by and help with program and hardware issues. I try to keep costs as low as possible, suggesting affordable video cameras or larger monitors so that clients can easily share documents with their lawyers and participate more in their own advocacy.”
- TRUSTED FRIEND, AS A LAST RESORT.
- Some senior clients insist on bringing a friend into the process for support. While this may seem like the easiest way to address tech issues (e.g., having the friend set up the video/camera and sort through emails), it is generally not advisable. Having any third-party present, let alone an adult child, triggers the collateral consequence of waiving attorney-client privilege.
While we hope the “Golden Bachelor” and all seniors find great relationships later in life, grey divorces are inevitable. Finding lawyers and collateral professionals who have experience with the nuances of litigation with seniors may make what is already an unpleasant process a little easier.
Woodnick Law, PLLC is a boutique law firm that serves individuals and families in Maricopa County, Coconino County, Pima County, and all throughout Arizona.
Jeff Raben is an IT consultant and the owner of RabenIT. He can be reached at (480) 453-9935 or at email@example.com.