Elder care and divorce

A confluence of circumstances can conspire against marriage among older couples: longevity, soaring elder-care costs and a lack of long-term care (LTC) insurance. Divorce, even if painful, may hurt less than living in near poverty until Medicaid finally kicks in to cover an ill spouse according to USA TODAY.

Medicare insurance only covers up to 100 days of nursing care. If you or your spouse need nursing or LTC, you either pay out of pocket until your assets fall below a low threshold or tap your LTC insurance.

LTC is not medical care, but help with personal tasks of everyday life. More than 11 million Americans need LTC now and total costs can easily hit six figures: Average need for care lasts about three years (2.2 years for men and 3.7 years for women, according the National Clearinghouse for Long Term Care Information.

If you don’t have LTC insurance, you pay out of pocket until you spend most of your assets and Medicaid (an aid-based program for low-income people) steps in as a last resort.

From my professional experience, counseling someone to consider divorce to stave off financial ruin is difficult, to say the least. A healthy spouse can feel wrong and immoral taking such advice.

My clients Debbie and Glenn (not their real names) are 72 and both on their second marriage. They married 11 years ago and purchased a home together but, importantly, each kept investment assets separate.

Three years ago, Debbie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Since then, Glenn hired personal caregivers to help Debbie every day and part of each night. The expenses depleted Debbie’s assets two years ago; Glenn now draws on his individual retirement savings to cover her care, which costs more than $3,000 a month.

The alternative: Glenn and Debbie remain married but he keeps spending his nest egg. That means he risks winding up with little money for his own medical and living needs in the future (of particular concern, since Glenn can easily live another 25 or more years). A divorce that’s primarily just on paper won’t interfere with Glenn’s overseeing and coordinating Debbie’s care but will protect his assets and open the door for Medicaid.

Glenn understands the seemingly cold logic of divorcing Debbie. Yet he can’t tolerate the feeling that he’s betraying her; he can’t decide what to do. Meanwhile, the clock ticks as he whittles down his retirement money.

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