Grey Divorce: What it Is, Why it Happens, How to Plan

The term “grey divorce” refers to the breakdown and breakup of long-term marriages, or marriages of those in their mid-fifties and beyond. Most of us have an expectation that once a couple has made it past some of the struggles common in young marriages—tight budgets, the chaos of raising small children—the rest is smooth sailing. The reality has turned out to be somewhat different. While divorce rates are down overall in the United States according to the Wall Street Journal, divorce rates among those over 55 are on the rise, and the increase is significant.

What that means is that if you are among those who are facing the prospect of a “grey divorce,” you’re far from alone. And while divorce in your 50s, 60s, and 70s has some advantages over divorcing at a younger age, it also presents some unique challenges for which you should be prepared.

Why is Grey Divorce Becoming More Common?

There are a number of reasons for the uptick in grey divorce, but perhaps one of the main reasons for the increase in absolute numbers is that thanks to the Baby Boomers, there are simply more people in this age group.

Sheer numbers don’t tell the whole story. The Baby Boomers were possibly the first American generation raised to believe that they could, and should, put their own happiness first. If marriage isn’t bringing the fulfillment they expected, especially in the so called “golden years,” they may feel more free to abandon it than their parents. There is certainly less of a social stigma attached to divorce than there had been even a generation ago.

Some people haven’t spent much time thinking about their own satisfaction during the marriage, but have been distracted with building a career and raising a family. When the kids are grown and gone, and the long-planned for retirement is a reality, some couples may realize there is not much left to bind them together. Other couples may have been unhappy for a long time, but stuck it out “for the sake of the children.” With the nest empty, and the possibility of decades of life ahead, there is little incentive to stay in a miserable situation.

And, as with all couples, there may be a variety of factors that contribute to the breakdown of a longer-term marriage: financial stress, mental and physical health challenges, addiction, and of course, infidelity. For some couples, the internet plays a supporting role in their divorce, making it easier to gamble or find drugs or an affair partner, for instance.

Whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, for a grey divorce, the focus of the divorce process is likely to be different than it is for younger couples.

Unique Challenges of Grey Divorce

When a younger couple divorces after two or five or ten years of marriage, often the biggest issues to resolve are those relating to the children: custody, child support, and parenting time. These issues can be contentious, of course, and there is a reason some couples choose not to divorce until their kids are grown and they don’t have to fight over them.

That doesn’t mean that grey divorces are without their challenges, it’s just that the nature of the challenges is somewhat different. With an older couple divorcing, finances are likely to be the greatest bone of contention. One spouse, still typically the wife, may have sacrificed her own career advancement in order to raise the couple’s children. Now, faced with a divorce at 60 or 70, it may be difficult or impossible to find work or resume a career, not to mention build a financial reserve that would allow for retirement in the time that is left. Couples who had planned to retire on one spouse’s pension, IRA, or 401(k) may find those funds insufficient to support two households.

If one spouse is unable to become self-supporting, the other may need to pay alimony, also known as spousal support. In marriages that have lasted decades, with older spouses, that could mean that the court orders spousal support to be open-ended, with no set date for termination. This may or may not be enough to support the person receiving it, but it will probably affect the standard of living of the person paying. Duration of alimony isn’t the only complexity involved. Later in one’s career, compensation becomes more complicated. In addition to base pay, certain bonuses, stock options, and other forms of compensation should be taken into account when calculating the appropriate and reasonable amount for spousal support for both the person who pays and the person who receives. In addition, the ability to take social security benefits for those 62 and older should be considered. A non-working spouse can receive a social security payment on a former spouse’s earnings if married more than ten years.

On top of the issues of spousal support, property division, and the division of retirement accounts in long-standing marriages, spouses tend to settle into certain roles: one partner might manage the finances almost exclusively or be the one to arrange for or make repairs to the home or vehicles, meaning that upon the divorce, the other spouse will need to develop a whole new skill set or risk running through their limited resources too quickly.

The prospect of disentangling finances and assets is daunting, to be sure. If you are considering divorce after many years of marriage, you need to think through all of the potential implications with an experienced family law attorney. A divorce, especially in your later years, is not just an emotional or legal event, but a financial one as well. Being well-prepared for the process makes it much more likely you can have the outcome you hope for. We invite you to contact our law office to schedule a consultation.