Study: Among older couples, wife’s serious illness may raise divorce risk

Research suggests that older couples may be more likely to divorce when the wife suffers from a serious illness, such as cancer or heart problems.

When many couples in Portland tie the knot, they appreciate the possibility that they will face health problems and associated challenges later in life. Many couples feel more than ready to take on these burdens together; however, these hardships may prove too strenuous for some couples. A new study suggests that serious health issues later in life can raise the risk of divorce, but only when the wife suffers from the health problem.

Role reversals

According to Today, researchers from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis followed more than 2,700 older couples from 1992 to 2010. During that period, the researchers found that nearly one-third of the couples divorced. In nearly half of those divorces, the wife had fallen ill with one of four diseases that researchers focused on, which were heart problems, cancer, lung disease and stroke. Even more of the divorces may have involved other illnesses.

This finding suggests that for older couples, the wife's health may be a significant risk factor for divorce. The study found that sickness in husbands, in contrast, did not have an apparent impact on divorce risk. Researchers speculated that this was because past gender norms made wives feel accustomed to playing the role of caretaker. Switching roles could be difficult for husbands, who may withdraw emotionally, as well as wives, who may feel they are not fulfilling their proper roles.

Regardless of the underlying reasons, if couples decide to divorce later in life, reaching a reasonable settlement in which property is divided fairly and the disadvantaged spouse receives adequate support is crucial. This is especially true when the divorce involves illness, considering the steep financial toll associated with poor health.

Divorce settlement considerations

Under Oregon law, divorcing spouses have the right to determine how they will divide property and debts. If spouses cannot reach an agreement, a family law judge divides property in a manner that is considered equitable or fair. The judge's primary considerations include the current earnings of each spouse, the future earning capacity of each spouse and the origins of the property.

Depending on the circumstances, the judge may also order one spouse to support the other by making alimony payments. There are three types of alimony:

  • Spousal maintenance, which helps the disadvantaged spouse keep up the marital standard of living. Maintenance can be paid temporarily or permanently, depending on various factors.
  • Compensatory support, which pays one spouse back for contributions, financial or otherwise, that were made to the other spouse's career, education or earning power.
  • Transitional support, which helps one spouse transition through the divorce into supporting himself or herself independently, usually through education or vocational training.

Issues such as health and financial need, along with other factors, may affect a judge's decision to award spousal maintenance. Depending on the circumstances, compensatory support may also be appropriate for an older spouse who gave up opportunities to support the other spouse.

The way that spouses present themselves and their situations can be impactful when property division and alimony awards are determined. Although legal advice and representation can be valuable in any divorce, spouses whose divorces involve unusual circumstances, such as serious illness, may especially benefit from consulting with an attorney during the divorce proceedings.

Keywords: divorce, illness, support