Gray divorce is a term usually referencing divorces in couples who are 50 years old and older. The baby boomer generation is currently experiencing a rising trend in divorce rates. Meanwhile, in millennials and Gen Z, divorce rates are declining. The special challenges and implications of gray divorce make it different from divorces of younger couples. The phenomenon is turning into an area of interest for sociologists, financial planners, and family law practitioners.

What is Considered a Gray Divorce?

Defining Gray Divorce

The term “gray divorce” came into common use around 2004 after being used by an article in AARP. The organization used it to report on the increase in the divorce rate in couples over the age of 50.

As many of these divorces involve long-term marriages, the parties often have many joint assets and debts to divide.  They often have special considerations as the parties are often retired or approaching retirement age.  The parties may be thinking about long-term care and how their life will change if they no longer have their spouse.

The gray divorce phenomenon is not just a trend in the United States but has also been noticed in other countries.

Reasons for the Rise of Gray Divorce

Extended Life Expectancy

Today, people tend to live longer and healthier lives. This fact puts a person in a situation where they might reconsider their life choices. A person may try to find self-fulfillment in later years by ending an unhappy marriage.

Changing Social Norms

Attitudes to divorce have changed dramatically over the last few decades. The stigma of divorce has declined substantially and it’s more socially acceptable for married couples to divorce later in life.

Further, those who started their marriage practicing more traditional gender roles common at the time they married, may no longer be willing to fulfill those roles now that social norms have shifted.  Alternatively, the other spouse may be frustrated that the other party no longer is willing to follow the more traditional roles or has had an ideology change.  It can be difficult to remain married if your fundamental ideologies have drifted apart.

Financial Independence

Many seniors, especially women, are more financially independent now than in prior generations. This allows a person in an unhappy marriage to leave their partner as they have the means and confidence to do so.

Empty Nest Syndrome

Couples whose marriages have been on the rocks find themselves alone when the children leave the house.  They may look differently at the value of the relationship once the children are grown.

Personal Growth and Self-Realization

As people mature, they may find a more intense sense of self and personal goals in life. This can lead them to a realization that their marriage doesn’t align with their aspirations and values anymore.

Unique Challenges

Financial Implications

Dividing assets and retirement savings can be extremely complicated in gray divorces. Retirement may be nearing or already there. Once the assets and debts are divided, each party now often has about half of the marital estate.  Yet the overall expenses often go up as there are now two sets of household expenses when the spouses separate.  If the spouses are already on a fixed income or have little time to try to recoup financially before retirement, there may be special considerations when deciding how to equitably divide the assets and debts.  Divorce can greatly impact retirement plans, living arrangements, and overall financial security, and this is especially true in a gray divorce when there are often few working years left.

Health Insurance

Health issues often become an increasing concern as people age.  For the spouse covered by the other spouse’s insurance policy, the loss of health insurance can be problematic.

New Responsibilities

Especially if one spouse has health issues or the spouses have fulfilled more traditional gender roles, there may need to be additional planning for a spouse that has to take on new responsibilities.

For example, if one spouse has taken on a caregiver role, there may be the need to arrange daily help or long-term care if a spouse isn’t able to take care of their activities of daily living on their own.  Further, you may have a spouse with very little financial literacy if the other spouse always handled the finances and budgeting.

The Emotional Impact

A gray divorce may result in loss of companionship, the breaking of established routines, and changes in family dynamics, resulting in loneliness and depression.  Although this can also be true for younger couples who divorce, there may be special challenges in a gray divorce when one spouse does not drive or heavily relies on their spouse for social networking.

Legacy Transitions and Inheritance

Gray divorces often have special considerations due to the length of the marriage and the family dynamics that often come with an older age.  Long-established traditions may be broken when the spouses no longer wish to host holidays together.  Adult children may have become caretakers and may have a strong influence to try to persuade a spouse one way or the other. There may be concerns related to inheritance, especially if the spouses had children from prior relationships.  There may need to be planning for the transition of a family business or multiple properties.

Financial Considerations

Division of Assets and Debts

It’s important to ensure the division of assets and debts allows both parties to fulfill their financial needs. The equitable distribution of assets and debts generally includes:

  • All tangible property, including things like household goods and furnishings
  • Real estate and any mortgages
  • Vehicles and any Vehicle Loans
  • Long Term Care and Life Insurance Policies
  • Bank Accounts and other Financial Accounts
  • HSA and FSA
  • Retirement and Pension accounts
  • Annuities
  • Credit Cards and other Debts
  • Investments and more

Alimony and Spousal Support

Especially when one spouse was clearly the higher earner, this may be a key consideration in a gray divorce and is dependent upon factors such as:

  • The length of marriage
  • The standard of living during the marriage
  • The financial needs and earning capacities of both spouses
  • The length of time until each spouse can draw Social Security
  • The assets and debts available to divide

Social Security Benefits

A spouse may be eligible to claim benefits based on their ex-spouse’s earning record. This may be the case if their marriage lasted for not less than ten years.

Estate Planning

Estate plans, wills, and beneficiary designations should be updated post-divorce to ensure that all assets are distributed according to the individual’s desires and new marital status.

The Gray Divorce Revolution

Understanding the unique aspects of gray divorce helps individuals navigate this life transition, coming out the other side stronger and more resilient.  For best results, retain an attorney to assist you in protecting your rights.

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The information you obtain at this site is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.