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What Is a Gray Divorce?

A “gray divorce” is a term for a divorce between middle-aged and older adults after a long marriage. The overall rate of divorce in the United States has been declining. However, with longer life expectancy on the rise, American divorce rates for married people over the age of 50 are increasing.

With the gray divorce revolution in full swing, divorces between older couples encounter many unique challenges. Especially compared to couples separating after only a few years together. The consequences of divorce for long-term married couples often involve answering complex questions about their estates, retirement funds, and their adult children.

The divorce process is never easy, particularly if it’s a late-life divorce. If you’re contemplating ending a long-term marriage, it would be best to speak with a local divorce lawyer from an experienced law firm.

Why Are Older People Divorcing?

There may be several differences between divorces in younger and older age groups. The average length of a marriage in the U.S. is about eight years. There may be a lot of changes over the first few years of marriage, including moving to a new area, taking on a new job, and having children. Stress involving money, work, and parenting can take a toll on a couple. Other issues, like marital conflict, infidelity, substance abuse, or domestic abuse, can all be causes.

Older couples may have already gone through the first couple of decades of marriage, raised children, achieved financial security, and saved for their retirement plans. However, perspectives may shift for a couple as they move into their golden years. For many couples who are approaching their 60s or 70s, it is more likely that one spouse primarily took care of the household and children and the other spouse pursued a career. When the children are out of the house and grandchildren visit less often, empty nest syndrome can set in, meaning a significant change for the stay-at-home spouse. For the career spouse approaching retirement, the company may begin to phase out their role, taking away a large part of their identity.

How Is Gray Divorce Different From Other Divorce?

In any divorce, issues that the couple cannot decide on their own may have to be determined by the court in divorce proceedings, and the couple will have to choose how to agree on a divorce settlement. This is the difference between an uncontested divorce and a contested divorce. The most common issues to be determined in younger divorces include:

In a gray divorce, issues involving children (child custody, visitation, and child support) are generally not at play since children have by that point reached adulthood (though custody of pets may be a point of contention). Instead, the most significant factors in a later divorce are:

  • Changes to estate planning.
  • Spousal support.
  • Property division.
  • Updating Medicare and Social Security benefits.

More Assets After a Longer Marriage

When younger people get divorced, they may not have much in the way of significant marital assets. Many of their assets may also be tied to debt, including a home mortgage, car payments, and purchases made on credit. However, couples may have amassed multiple properties, vehicles, jewelry and collectibles, savings, investments, and even business assets after long-term marriages.

Distribution of Assets

Division of assets depends, in part, on whether the couple lives in a community property state or an equitable division state. Most states divide property through equitable distribution. In an equitable distribution state, the court will attempt to divide the property fairly, not necessarily 50-50. Factors in allocation may include:

  • Age.
  • Economic resources of each spouse.
  • Marital duration.
  • Standard of living.
  • Contributions to the marriage.

In community property, the property and debts acquired by the married couple during the marriage are considered property of the marriage and can be divided equally. Any property each spouse had before the marriage remains their separate property.

Retirement Benefits in a Divorce

Older couples may have significant retirement savings, including pensions, IRAs, 401ks, and other retirement accounts. In a divorce, retirement assets may require a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO). Retirement savings are subject to ERISA laws, and a plan administrator may not be able to divide the plan participant’s funds without a QDRO. If you have questions about retirement accounts being divided in a divorce, talk to your experienced divorce attorney.

Spousal Maintenance or Support

Spousal maintenance, alimony, or spousal support may also be contentious issues in a divorce. After decades of a certain standard of living, each spouse may expect to be able to maintain a similar lifestyle after divorce. However, one spouse may have had a limited income or no full-time job because they were the primary caregiver and took care of the household duties.

When a younger couple splits up, the court may expect a young person to be able to get the education, experience, or training to get a job to support themselves. However, a 70-year-old divorcee who was out of the workforce for 50 years may not be expected to get out and find a job to support them. Alimony can be awarded to either spouse for a set amount of years until remarriage or another change in circumstances. Factors in determining an alimony award may include:

  • Economic resources and needs.
  • Earning capacity.
  • Standard of living during the marriage.
  • Age and health.
  • Contributions to the other spouse’s education and career.

Is a Collaborative Divorce Approach Right?

Middle-aged and older adults may have decades of experience in cooperation and collaboration. Older divorcees may also have adult children and grandchildren in common and may still be a part of each other’s life after the divorce. Because of this, many gray divorce couples try to avoid contentious separations. Couples may be able to come to an agreement over most of the property division issues, but there may still be some areas of dispute, including who gets the family home or the family pet.

Like mediation, a collaborative divorce is an alternative to the standard adversarial approach to divorce. The divorcing couple may be in the best position to decide how to settle their disputes and may benefit from a divorce mediator to help them focus on the central issues. Collaborative divorces may be less expensive, take less time, and allow the couple to remain on good terms after separation.

Is It Too Late to Call a Divorce Lawyer?

No. You’ll want to contact a family law attorney with divorce experience as soon as possible. Because of the unique factors in gray divorce, it is best to consult a legal expert in divorce law about your situation. If you are wondering what your options may be in getting a divorce after decades of marriage, consider using a database like LawInfo to find an experienced local divorce attorney near you.

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