Older Adults and Romance

Hook Law News | Jun 4, 2018 | Letha Sgritta McDowell

It is no secret that American families come in all shapes and sizes.  Gone are the days when a family consisted of a husband and wife who have only been married once and their children from that marriage.  Much research has been done on blended families at any age but not much information exists on older adults and relationship.  Indeed when the issue arises, many families (adult children and grandchildren) are shocked that romantic relationships are a concern.  Yet, romantic relationships and the resulting intimacy and companionship can vastly improve the quality of life for many older adults.  However, the relationship may also require some legal planning to protect all involved.

There are trends with relationships among older adults which may surprise many (especially their children).  One such trend is a coupling where the partners cohabitate but choose not to get married.  In times past, this arrangement may have been seen as unusual at best and judged harshly at worst.  However, since 2007 there has been a 75% rise in the number of couples where the parties are 50 or older in the United States who live together but who choose not to get married.

The reasons for the choice vary widely.  For some, the possible loss of pension benefits or health insurance benefits from a prior spouse provide a financial incentive to avoid remarriage.  For many who have been divorced, they look at cohabitation, commitment, and personal happiness as more valuable than the ceremony.  In addition, there is less risk in that they are not legally responsible for the debts of their cohabitating partner, but they would be responsible for the debts of a spouse.  For many, women in particular, cohabitation offers financial stability in that there is a combination of incomes to support the household, but no risk of loss of assets which were accumulated with a prior spouse.

In addition, to the many couples who choose to cohabitate, there is a trend emerging known as “living apart together.”  This refers to couples in loving and committed relationships who desire to remain committed but who do not want to get married or cohabitate.  Unlike the dating relationships of most younger adults, where dating is a step on the way to marriage, these couples see no need for anything beyond the commitment.  As for those who choose to cohabitate, the reasons for this vary widely.  Some have been through devastating divorces and do not want a similar entanglement.  Others don’t want the crowded feeling that accompanies another living in the same space and they want to maintain separate social circles and events.

From a legal perspective much emphasis is placed on careful planning for married couples.  However, for couples in alternative arrangements, planning may be even more important.  For many older adults in alternative arrangements, they want their non-spouse partner to make medical or financial decisions for them in the event of an incapacity or they may wish for their partner to make medical decisions but other family members to make financial decisions.  Whatever the desire, appropriate legal documents must exist so that wishes are clearly expressed.  It can also be helpful to let all parties, especially adult children who may expect to take on certain roles, to know the express wishes of the individual prior to a medical crisis or incapacity.  Failure to do can result in negative feelings between parties or, in some cases, contested litigation over who should be allowed to make certain decisions.

Being an older adult does not preclude a romantic relationship and, if you are an older adult in an alternative relationship, you are not alone.  Relationships can take on a variety of appearances, all of which can contribute to a happy and positive old age.  However, some legal planning is recommended to protect all involved.

Ask Kit Kat – Retired Chimps

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about retired chimps living at a sanctuary in Georgia?

Kit Kat: Well, this is an interesting story. A refuge for retired research chimpanzees has been established in Blue Ridge, GA. Naturally, it is called Project Chimps. Currently, there are 40 chimps living there who were once used in research projects. Most have come from the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana. There are 173 more awaiting placement. This relatively new effort at retiring research chimps began in 2015 when chimps were classified as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). USFWS had been in litigation with the Humane Society of the US (HSUS) which forced the re-classification. It’s an expensive proposition. Chimps usually live into their 50s, and costs approximate $22,000 per year to care for each chimp.

Lucky are the chimps who are being cared for in Georgia. Their habitat is a 236-acre wooded area comprised of large yards and four villas. Initially, males and females are kept apart. Males have been sterilized, and females are given oral contraceptives as an added precaution. Socialization is done gradually and very carefully. Males and females are allowed to interact, but always under supervision, at least at the beginning. Emma and Eddie when they met, did so under the watchful eye of a supervisor, who lifted a series of gates, until they finally were allowed to hug and groom each other out in the open.

Another example are twin sisters—Buttercup and Charisse—who frequently display a rocking motion, even when given something to eat. Other chimps in their yard rush out and grab lettuce leaves when they’re offered, but not these two. They rock back and forth in stages, before they separate and take the lettuce. This behavior is not seen in the wild, so their caretakers hypothesize that is done as a comforting behavior. They were raised by their mother in captivity, but their mother was not raised by her mother, so they are not sure how nurturing their mother was.

All 40 chimps are considered individually and carefully as to their needs. If you would like to donate to the chimps’ care, you may do so at www.projectchimps.org or mail your gift to Project Chimps, P.O.Box 2140, Blue Ridge, GA 30513 with “All Animals” on the check memo line. (Emily Smith, “It’s their time,” All Animals, May/June 2018, p. 18-21)

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Letha Sgritta McDowell

Attorney, Shareholder, CELA
757-399-7506 | 252-722-2890
[email protected]

Letha Sgritta McDowell is a Shareholder of Hook Law practicing in the areas of estate planning, elder law, special needs planning, estate and trust administration, asset protection planning, long-term care planning, personal injury settlement consulting, guardianships & conservatorships, and tax law. Ms. McDowell’s clients range from high-net-worth individuals with over $75 million in net worth to families with limited assets.

Ms. McDowell is a past President of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and was named as a Fellow of the prestigious American College of Trusts and Estates Council (“ACTEC”) in 2020. She is certified as an elder law attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation (“CELA”) and Board Certified as a specialist in Elder Law by the North Carolina State Bar Board of Legal Specialization. Furthermore, McDowell is accredited to prepare and prosecute claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Ms. McDowell is currently the chair of NAELA’s strategic planning committee, a member of the Board of Directors for the North Carolina Chapter of NAELA, and a member of the Board of Directors for the Purdue Center for Cancer Research. She is the former Chair of the North Carolina State Bar’s Elder Law Specialization Committee and is the former Editor-in-Chief of “Gray Matters”, the newsletter for the Elder Law Section of the North Carolina Bar Association. She is a consultant for InterActive Legal and has worked on several law and technology initiatives including IBM’s Watson project. Along with her experience practicing as an attorney, she has dedicated much of her time writing for national publications including, but not limited to: Wolters Kluwer, Wealthmanagement.com, the NAELA Journal, Trust & Estates Magazine and many more.

Practice Areas

  • Elder Law
  • Estate & Trust Administration
  • Estate Planning
  • Asset Protection Planning
  • Long-Term Care Planning
  • Special Needs Planning
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