‘Gray Divorce’ Is On The Rise — Here’s What You Need to Know

The divorce rate in the U.S. has steadily fallen over the past two decades, with the latest statistic putting 2.5 per 1,000 marriages ending in divorce or annulment. But while overall rates are dropping, people over 50 have actually seen a rise in divorces.

Dubbed “gray divorce,” data from Pew Research Center show that people who are 50 and up are ending their marriages at more than double the rate they did in the 1990s. Heather Evans is one of them. “I started a divorce at 57,” she says. 

“My marriage and divorce were hardest on my four high school and college-aged daughters,” she continues. “I enjoy change, but kids — even very sophisticated kids — really need stability at home.” Evans had moved to the Caribbean with her then-husband and decided to move back to the U.S. after they broke up, which required her to find a job stateside. 

“I heard horrors about how hard it would be in my late 50s,” Evans says. “However, I landed a fabulous job as a managing director and chief marketing officer at J.P. Morgan and set up a home for myself and my daughters.”

Evans says both she and her ex-husband had been married before and were prepared for this. “We had a prenup that laid out exactly how we would divide our assets in case of divorce,” she says. 

But not all divorces end as smooth as Evans’s. People over 50 dealing with divorce may be caught off guard and unprepared for what happens next. What’s behind this increase in gray divorce, and what kind of challenges do couples in this age group face? Experts break it down. 

Every marriage — and breakup — is unique. With that, it’s tough to blame a single cause for gray divorces. However, lawyers who have handled gray divorces have noticed a few trends.

“I believe the increase in divorce among people aged 50 and older can be attributed to societal changes,” says California family law attorney Holly J. Moore of Moore Family Group. “Divorce was less acceptable and often financially unfeasible in the past due to single-income households.” 

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Unlike in past decades, people now have more freedom and independence. “The mindset has shifted towards prioritizing personal happiness, and individuals are more empowered to leave unhappy marriages,” Moore says. “Also, women now have more diverse roles and identities beyond being solely wives or mothers, which may contribute to their willingness to pursue divorce.”

Longevity likely plays a role, too, says Paul Talbert, a partner with Donohoe Talbert LLP. “People seem to be living longer and are active longer,” he says. “The longer people live, the more opportunity there is to make life changes such as divorce.” 

People are also more active later in life than they used to be, Talbert says. “We’re not retiring at 65 anymore. We envision there is lots of living and fulfillment ahead of us,” he says. “Couples are asking themselves, Is this the person I want to spend that time with? Especially if we are retired and work doesn’t fulfill other goals.” Finally, people are becoming less fearful of being alone in old age and less dependent on spouses to take care of them as they age.  

If people in their 50s have children, chances are they are older so custody battles aren’t typically much of an issue as they would be in younger divorces, Moore says.  

“Health insurance is probably the biggest issue people face,” Talbert adds. “If you are dependent on a spouse for insurance and you’re not yet eligible for Medicare, it can be a significant expense.” He says that some couples may choose to get legally separated instead of divorced so they can retain the ability to be covered on their ex’s health insurance. 

“Social security benefits may also be important depending upon your resources,” he says. “Ex-spouses may receive benefits based upon the length of marriage — 10 years is an important marker — marriage status, and other criteria.”

Splitting up retirement funds can also be tricky. “Dividing retirement assets becomes more complicated when the assets are already being paid out,” Moore explains. “This requires reconciling different types of assets and income sources, which can be complex.” 

If retirement assets aren’t already being paid out, dividing them may not be difficult. “Most people have retirement assets like a 401k, IRA, and qualified pension plan that can easily be divided by a Qualified Domestic Relations Order issued by the court in connection with the divorce,” Talbert says. “For those who are government employees and have pensions or other retirement assets, those assets can often be more difficult to divide and can have certain benefits that you may not otherwise consider.” If that’s the case, he will often recommend that clients work with a pension expert as well.  

If you’re considering a gray divorce, speak with a lawyer in advance. “Spend the time to speak with a divorce attorney to identify potential issues and outcomes so you can make an informed decision and take any steps necessary to put you in the best position if you do decide to get divorced,” Talbert advises. 

If you decide to go forward with a divorce, Moore suggests trying to find something that brings positivity to your life at the same time. “Engaging in a hobby or setting new career goals can provide a sense of self-esteem and act as a healthy distraction. Focusing your energy on something positive is important to avoid falling into a negative spiral.”

A gray divorce is the end of marriage but also an opportunity to start anew. For Evans, a gray divorce was the right choice for her. “I am now happily remarried, and I’m confident this one will be forever.”

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