For richer or poorer? Divorce delivers long-term financial blow

Victoria Whitelaw says her divorce took a long-term toll on her finances, despite her well-paid job as a lawyer. Photo: Joe Armao
Victoria Whitelaw says her divorce took a long-term toll on her finances, despite her well-paid job as a lawyer. Photo: Joe Armao

Victoria Whitelaw, 62, has some hard-earned advice for younger women.

Of course, they cannot know if their relationships – like her first marriage – will one day end in a divorce. But there’s no harm in being prepared and skilled up, she says.

“There might not be two incomes, there might be a glitch in child support, there might be health issues because of stress,” she says. “I’m a person who’s able to earn a relatively decent income, and yet divorce had a profound effect on my finances.”

Ms Whitelaw, a barrister, is not unusual. Older Australians – men and women – who have divorced are substantially less well off in later life than people who stayed married, according to new research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

The national study looked at the long-term financial consequences for people who divorced 15 to 20 years ago, and found divorced people aged between 55 and 74 had less disposable income and assets than married couples.

Even people who remarry lag behind in their assets in later years compared with those who stayed married.

The study found, on average, divorced single men were $10,000 worse off, and divorced single women were $6,300 worse off.

Ms Whitelaw is cognisant of her privileges: today she’s a barrister and owns a home in Brunswick in Melbourne’s inner north, with about $100,000 left on the mortgage. But it wasn’t always like this.

She married her first husband when she was 27 and had just qualified as a lawyer. She was the higher income earner in the relationship and always worked full-time, except when she was pregnant.

After five years and one child together the couple split up and she retained their Brunswick house. Being a sole parent was a huge financial strain, and during the recession Ms Whitelaw worked three jobs.

During the day she was a solicitor at Victoria Legal Aid, in the evenings she was a waiter and on the weekends she sold sunglasses at a market.

"Women want equality, but unfortunately it’s still not a fact of life. We earn so much less, we do so much more work, and it’s just not an easy life on your own,” Ms Whitelaw says. “I don’t have money problems now, but it’s been a fine line.”

Older divorced women were affected by the costs associated with raising children and the time taken out of work for caring responsibilities, says institute researcher Lixia Qu.

Divorced single men were more likely to be of a lower socioeconomic status, and lower educated, than those who stayed married.

But don't despair. Men and women who subsequently remarried were generally able to restore their income levels (but not assets) to match or even better those who had stayed married.

When her second husband died, after "many happy years" and a son together, Ms Whitelaw decided it was time to strike out on her own and become a barrister.

She appreciates the flexible nature of her highly paid work and the fact it has allowed her to care for her second son, who has a psychiatric illness.

And she plans to sell her home and move into an apartment, so she can be debt free in her later years.

“As a woman you just don’t have the ability to hang onto the family home and provide for everyone all the time.”