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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Gonzaga’s Elder Law Clinic sees spike in divorce requests

Requests for divorce by older Spokanites have nearly tripled at Gonzaga Law School’s Elder Law Clinic during the first seven months of this year.

Don’t blame it on the trifecta of supermoons or our recent whacky weather. It’s a trend throughout the country where divorce among baby boomers and older generations is soaring, nearly doubling in recent years. The trend has garnered its own nicknames: gray divorce or silver divorce.

“All of a sudden (older) people are wanting divorce,” said Larry Weiser, director of the University Legal Assistance and the Elder Law Clinic.

It’s the first time he’s seen such a rise during his 33 years overseeing the clinic that provides low-cost legal assistance to people who are at least 60.

Since 2011, the Elder Law Clinic has handled about nine divorce cases annually, including three so far this year. But Weiser is seeing a sharp jump in the number of requests for divorces that the clinic refers to private family and elder law attorneys or other low-cost legal organizations.

Through Aug. 6, the clinic has referred 31 divorce cases. Last year it referred only six cases, in 2012 one case and in 2011 no cases.

It’s a big jump, just as it is across the country, causing demographers and other social scientists to figure out why baby boomers are splitting in such high numbers. Since the 1970s, divorce has become common in America with the current overall rate at 50 percent.

Last year in Spokane Superior Court there were 918 dissolutions that involved children, 991 dissolutions without children and 115 legal separations, according to the 2013 annual report of domestic cases.

Neighboring Lincoln County has an even higher divorce rate. Many Spokane divorces are filed in Davenport in Lincoln County, because it provides limited online access to the courts, meaning more privacy for couples, and less onerous rules for parenting plans and other divorce details, Weiser said. Last year in Lincoln County there were 1,307 dissolutions with children, 2,376 dissolutions without children and 100 legal separations.

Statewide there were 12,733 dissolutions with children, 15,583 dissolutions without children and 1,622 legal separations.

“It always seems to be domestic violence or the marriage has been over for a long time,” Weiser said about the cases handled in the Elder Law Clinic.

Family law attorney Paul Mack has done divorces for two decades in Spokane. He said more than half of his caseload is people older than 45. Many of his clients are professionals – doctors and lawyers – with assets and future earning capacity totaling more than $1 million.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen more (baby boomers divorcing), but I see a lot,” he said, adding he doesn’t keep track of age statistics.

A divorce for a couple in their 20s is usually a lot simpler than a couple in their 50s who have been married for 25 years and have more assets and lucrative careers, he said.

Mack said the court goes out of its way to ensure each party is treated fairly. Traditionally, the man was the money earner while the woman stayed at home. Mack is grateful this dynamic is changing and he’s seeing more women breadwinners. The court is sensitive to these issues in long-term divorces because the person who didn’t work outside the house is likely to have difficulty finding a job at age 50 or older. The court uses maintenance (formally known as alimony) and property settlement to make sure that person can have financial independence after the divorce.

“You don’t get do-overs after 50,” Mack said.

At the Elder Law Clinic, where all the clients are low-income and over 60, Weiser said he sees people who have lived separately in the same home for years or where one spouse left a decade ago. The clients have finally decided to end the relationship legally often for peace of mind, he said.

The other common scenario involves long-term abuse including violence, drugs and alcohol or gambling. As with national statistics, Weiser said some of the clinic clients got their first divorce in their 30s and now, 30 years later, they are seeing divorce for their second spouse.

“Often it’s second marriages and it just doesn’t work out,” Weiser said, adding that the common causes are finances, medical issues and family members such as children who don’t support the marriage.

Divorce is tough financially at any age, but especially when couples are on a fixed income like many older Americans.

Sometimes dementia is involved. In those cases, the attorney follows Washington court rules for clients with diminished capacity. If the client isn’t able to function, the court can appoint a guardian ad litem, yet in three decades Weiser said that hasn’t happened in the Elder Law Clinic.

Both Mack and Weiser said a common alternative to divorce is legal separation. The couple remains married but the assets and debts are divided by the court. Legal separations are used for numerous reasons including religious and philosophical beliefs, so one person can remain on the other’s insurance or hold out until Medicare benefits kick in at age 65, he said.

The Elder Law Clinic is modeled after a general-practice law firm but Gonzaga law students work the cases, which total about 325 yearly. Another 600 cases are referred outside the law school. The program includes six other clinics in addition to elder law including tax, business, environmental and Indian law.

When the clinic accepts a divorce case it’s assigned to a student who does the initial interview with the client. The student consults with Weiser and then prepares the divorce petition. The papers are served to the other spouse and filed with the court.

“The combination of law students and elders is just perfect,” Weiser said.

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