Divorce After 50: Is Gray the New Black?

Long-term marriage vows were once seen as unbreakable, yet people over 50 are increasingly parting ways. This surge in ‘gray divorce’ presents challenges and implications extending well beyond the couple. 

Grey divorce refers to the growing number of older couples, usually over 50, getting divorced. The term is becoming far more commonplace as the rate of separation of couples in this age range continues to rise. 

Financially, the stakes are high. Decades of accumulated assets must be divided, often leading to financial uncertainty for individuals who thought their economic futures were secure.

While divorcees may experience a rollercoaster of heartbreak, fear, or even relief, adult children, extended family, and close friends may also be entangled in the financial and emotional aftermath. 

A Turning Point

Gray divorce often marks a significant turning point in the lives of those involved, leading to profound changes in behavior, health, and well-being. Research from the American Psychological Association (APA) indicates that divorce later in life can trigger a range of mental health challenges, including depression, anxiety, and a sense of profound loss.

Adjusting to a single life can also lead to changes in daily routines and social interactions, influencing overall well-being. The challenge is more acute for those who have spent most of their adult lives in a partnership, now navigating the complexities of a drastically altered social landscape.

AARP, the non-profit organization for Americans 50 and older, does not sugarcoat the impacts. For most, wealth will drop by half, assuming things are equally split. At the same time, expenses will increase for everything from separate residences to two sets of bills for countless items such as utilities and insurance. Researchers for The Journals of Gerontology revealed that women who divorce after age 50 typically see a 45 percent drop in their standard of living, while men experience a 21 percent decrease.

Dividing assets, such as property, retirement funds, and savings, can lead to significant economic instability. This uncertainty is particularly concerning for individuals nearing or having already entered retirement, as rebuilding financial security at this later stage is considerably more challenging. Dividing a lifetime’s worth of assets also raises complex legal considerations, often necessitating expert financial and legal guidance.

Gray divorce does not only affect the couple but also reverberates through the entire family structure. Adult children may struggle with the breakup of their parents’ long-term marriage, leading to strained familial relationships and altered family dynamics. A recent study by the National Council on Family Relations notes that these changes can further aggravate the negative effect of divorce on parent’s mental health. It also leaves doubts about whether and how these parents can rely on their adult children for care and support as they age. 

Age of Independence

The prevalence of gray divorce has been on the rise. A separate study by The Journals of Gerontology found the divorce rate for U.S. married couples over 50 more than doubled between 1990 and 2010 from one in ten to one in four divorces. More recent National Center for Family & Marriage Research data shows this trend will continue into 2021. At the same time, the most significant increase in divorce rates was among people 65 and older, where the rate has tripled since 1990.

The research by the APA notes that the trend of later-life divorce, to a degree, mirrors more contemporary societal shifts. Nowadays, women are increasingly pursuing careers and gaining economic independence. Society’s evolving expectations for higher marital quality have made partners less willing to remain in “empty shell” marriages, especially once children have grown and left home. Furthermore, the possibility of a longer life expectancy, promising many more years of good health, also plays a role in this trend.

Nonetheless, the emotional landscape of individuals undergoing gray divorce is complex and varied. A study published in the Journal of Family Issues highlights that while some may experience a sense of liberation and opportunity for personal growth, others may struggle with feelings of failure, loneliness, and anxiety about the future. 

Clear Thinking

As the phenomenon of gray divorce becomes more prevalent, it’s crucial for those involved to approach the process with a strategic and level-headed mindset.

Unraveling a marriage, especially in the context of a gray divorce, is often far more complex and burdensome than getting married. Experts suggest that a crucial part of this process involves thorough access to and understanding critical financial information. This information includes tax returns, account numbers, balances, insurance policy details, and knowledge of whose name is on significant assets like car titles and home deeds.

Equally important is a clear grasp of the costs associated with maintaining or potentially selling a home, factoring in expenses for necessary repairs, utilities, and mortgage payments.

In cases where there’s a suspicion that a spouse might be hiding assets, the expertise of a lawyer or forensic accountant is indispensable to account for all particulars accurately. Another vital aspect is the tax implications of liquidating assets, such as shareholdings.

Decisions around alimony, whether to opt for regular payments or a larger share of family assets, also need careful deliberation. This decision is particularly crucial when there is uncertainty about a spouse’s ability to maintain alimony payments, necessitating arrangements like life insurance to secure financial stability post-divorce.

Despite the substantial financial implications of gray divorce, it is crucial to consider that it can irrevocably impact mental well-being and relationships with family and adult children throughout the process. The psychological adjustment to life after divorce involves redefining one’s identity and coping with the loss of a life partner, which can be particularly challenging in the later stages of life. Therapists, counselors, and psychologists can be critical for navigating the emotional turmoil associated with ending a long-term marriage. 

Gray divorce marks a significant change in long-term relationships and presents both financial and emotional challenges. Yet, with strategic planning, this period, despite its difficulties, offers a chance for a new beginning that includes economic stability and personal well-being.

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Mark Garro is an Aussie former CPA and corporate finance manager turned research writer. After more than two decades simplifying complex analyses for leading companies, including Goldman Sachs, Marks & Spencer, and Tabcorp, he packed up and moved to the Italian Riviera. Now he covers all things related to finance and equity research for a diverse range of publishers and syndicators around the world.