Gray Is the New Black: The Rise of “Gray Divorce”

April 30, 2014

For the first time, more Americans over the age of 50 are divorced than widowed.1 A recent study revealed Americans over 50 are twice as likely to get divorced as people of that age were 20 years ago. In 1990, less than 1 in 10 persons who got divorced was over the age of 50. Today, 1 in 4 people getting divorced is 50 or older. These numbers are projected to rise as baby boomers continue living long lives. Interestingly, this growing trend of divorce among older adults is at odds with the pattern of divorce for the population as a whole, which has seen divorce rates stabilize and even slightly decline in recent years.2

Why Is Gray Divorce On The Rise?

Although there is no single explanation, a number of factors may contribute to this growing phenomenon. First, there are a larger number of remarriages, which are more likely to end in divorce than first marriages. Second, a rising female labor force offers women the economic autonomy to explore non-marital arrangements later in life. Third, longer life expectancies decrease the likelihood marriage will end in death, and many older couples simply grow apart. This can be exacerbated by struggles many couples confront during middle and older adulthood, including empty nests, retirement or declining health. Fourth, cultural shifts have led to the “weakening norm of marriage as a lifelong institution” along with heightened emphasis on “individual fulfillment and satisfaction.” Fifth, medications to assist with sexual performance cause more individuals to seek physical contact outside the marriage, which leads to infidelity. According to a 2004 AARP survey, 66 percent of divorces among people ages 40 to 69 are initiated by women.3 While there are undoubtedly countless other factors, these are some of the few that have garnered more attention by researchers and empirical studies in recent years.

How Is A Gray Divorce Different?

While the process for obtaining a divorce is the same at any age, issues that are merely fringe issues for younger couples may become of critical importance for individuals going through a “gray divorce.”

  • Maintenance. Spousal support is more likely to be awarded in marriages of long duration. This is especially true if one spouse cannot easily enter the workforce post-divorce due to age, health or the mere length of absence from the workforce.
  • Retirement/Pension Plans in Pay Status. Dividing retirement and pension accounts after they have gone into pay status presents additional challenges, as it may limit the options available for dividing the plan.
  • Social Security/Medicare Benefits. Some spouses in long-term marriages are eligible for Social Security benefits earned on their former spouse’s work record. Proper financial planning in the divorce is critical to ensure age-related benefits are maximized for both spouses.
  • Role/Input of Adult Children. Navigating a divorce with adult children can be difficult. It may require establishing boundaries regarding future holiday gatherings and time spent with grandchildren. Adult children may have strong opinions about the divorce and may want to be intimately involved in this process, as it affects their family structure as well. While a lot of emphasis is placed on young children in a divorce, the emotional needs of older children should not be neglected.
  • Estate Planning. It is critical to update estate planning documents, such as a will, trust, power of attorney, and beneficiary designations on life insurance policies and retirement accounts. Some provisions are automatically invalidated by a divorce, whereas others are not.

If you or your parents are considering divorce and are over 50 years of age, contact one of Axley’s knowledgeable and experienced divorce attorneys to discuss your options.

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1 Brown, S.L. & Lin, I.-F., (2012).  “The Gray Divorce Revolution:  Rising Divorce Among Middle-Aged and Older Adults, 1990-2010.”  Journals of Gerontology Series B:  Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67(6), 731-741.

2 CDC/NCHS, National Vital Statistics System.

3 Montenegro, Xenia (2004).  “The Divorce Experience:  A Study of Divorce at Midlife and Beyond.”  AARP.