Topping this season’s reality TV ratings was “The Golden Bachelor.” Following the same formula as “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” this new spin featured handsome and youthful 72-year-old widower Gerry Turner and a bevy of attractive 60- to 75-year-old female contestants. The show inspired viewers both young and young-at-heart to believe that love can be found at any age and that we don’t have to spend our sunset years alone. These things are true of course.

However, Turner’s marriage to Theresa Nist, who received the final rose, lasted a scant three months. Gerry’s official statement regarding the divorce was, “Theresa and I have had a number of heart-to-heart conversations and we’ve looked closely at our situation, our living situation, and so forth. We’ve come to the conclusion mutually that it’s probably time for us to dissolve our marriage.”¹ The couple, who live in different states, went on to say that they looked at many homes in states they would consider relocating to, but ultimately decided they were not willing to give up their own community, groups of friends, families and routines.

What is Gray Divorce

While Turner and Nist were only married for three months, a growing number of their contemporaries ages 50 and older are divorcing after long-lasting marriages (first, second or third). In 2004, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) coined the term “gray divorce” to refer to couples who divorce over the age of 50.

Traditionally, marriage was seen as a lifelong commitment, where “till death do us part,” meant staying married regardless of what life had in store for the couple. However, societal shifts, cultural changes and individual aspirations have reshaped the landscape of marriage, leading to a reevaluation of long-held beliefs about love and partnership. Where once divorce was stigmatized and often not an option, today divorce is a more readily viable choice for this generation of individuals who are seeking greater happiness, fulfillment and independence.

Gray Divorce is on the Rise

According to the American Psychological Association, while divorce has declined among adults in their 20s and 30s, the rate among Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – has surged upward, doubling between 1990 and 2010 before leveling off more recently. In 1990, 8.7% of all divorces in the United States occurred among adults 50 and older and by 2019 that percentage had grown to 36%.²

With people living longer lives and having the potential to remain in a marriage for many more years than in past generations, the odds of one or both partners reassessing the relationship is more prevalent than ever. A myriad of scenarios or a combination of reasons can lead to divorce later in life, including:

  • Changes that have developed over time in values, priorities and lifestyle choices can lead to gray divorce. It’s easily conceivable that couples recognize that they are simply no longer compatible in a marriage-sustaining way and they are no longer willing to remain in a marriage that does not fully satisfy their wants and needs.
  • As with other age groups, infidelity, drug and alcohol addiction and mental health plays a major role in gray divorce.
  • If the couple are empty nesters, they may reach the point where they are no longer staying married “for the kids’ sake.” Or, the couple realizes how little they have in common once the children have left home.
  • The doldrums of years of the same routine – socially, leisurely, sexually, etc. – can weigh heavily enough on one party or both to drive them to divorce.
  • The prevalence of online dating and social media has made it easier to connect or reconnect with potential partners, even later in life. This accessibility can tempt individuals who feel unfulfilled in their marriages to seek companionship elsewhere.
  • Plans for retirement may look very different for each spouse. With longer life expectancies – and financial needs – many people are working well past their retirement age. Irreconcilable differences may arise when one party is ready to retire and the other is not. And, if both are on the same timeline to retire, one may be ready to sell the family home and buy a long-desired cabin in the woods while the other is ready to tackle their bucket list of travel and adventure.
  • Unlike Gen Xers and millennials, Baby Boomers were more likely to marry younger, which is a general risk factor for divorce.

Financial Consequences

As the economy has improved overall in recent decades, many people over 50 have more financial freedom to live independent of a spouse. While it may feel emotionally or psychologically empowering to end a marriage that no longer satisfies them, for many, divorcing may lead to major financial ruin or near-ruin for one or both parties. In fact, recent research³ shows that those who divorce after age 50 can expect their wealth to drop by about 50%. Additionally:

  • The average standard of living for women who divorce after age 50 plunges to 45% – about double the decline of younger divorced women.
  • The average standard of living for men who divorce after age 50 is 11.4, with a 21% decrease in their standard of living. This differs from the little to no impact on younger, divorced men’s incomes.
  • Women ages 63 and above who are divorced have a poverty rate of 27%, which is higher than any other group of that age, including widows. This rate is nine times higher than the poverty rate for couples who remain married.
  • Compounding the financial challenges older women face after divorce may be their limited options to reenter the workforce if they have been stay-at-home moms or have never worked.

In an article published by AARP, wealth manager Chris Manske provides advice specifically for the non-breadwinner in the marriage, historically the woman, who is approaching and going through a gray divorce and is likely to experience a financial downfall.⁴

Manske suggests that instead of obsessing over finding out where all the money is and knowing where all of the assets are, it is much more important in the early stages to work through post-divorce needs and requirements for a comfortable future. “Once you know that, it’s easier to figure out the support and assets worth fighting for,” he says.

Manske recommends assigning assets into two categories – those that make money, such as an investment account, and those that cost money, such as a home or car. He says that the approach, “you can have the house but I’ll keep the stocks and bonds” is not going to work because the house is a drain on whoever keeps it, but the stocks and bonds provide interest and dividends for whomever keeps them. Manske therefore counsels that the majority of the money-creating assets go to the non-breadwinner party.

Lastly, Manske reminds both parties to review and update their estate planning documents to reflect the wishes of the soon-to-be singles. This includes updating or setting up a trust to name a health care surrogate and a power of attorney, redesignating beneficiaries on investment and insurance accounts and updating wills.

Issues Unique to Gray Divorce

Obviously, the longer a couple has been married, the more entangled their lives are. Some of the areas which may require greater attention in gray divorce cases than in others include:

  • Parties have limited time to rebuild their financial resources, so the way they divide their assets, including retirement accounts and pensions, can drastically impact their financial security. Therefore cautious financial planning to ensure a secure financial future for both parties is imperative.
  • Health issues may be a major concern for older adults going through a divorce. If one or both spouses suffer from chronic illness, mobility issues or other significant medical impairments, their future medical care will need to be addressed, including how ongoing medical expenses will be paid. Additionally, as medical insurance coverage often changes post-divorce, this is an important issue that needs to be resolved.
  • Laying out each parties’ commitments to pay for their adult children’s college or advanced education expenses when such a scenario exists, even though the law doesn’t require support once the child is emancipated.

A Gentle Approach to Gray Divorce

Multiple studies have shown that more than any other demographic, those who have gone through a gray divorce are likely to suffer higher levels of grief, depression, anxiety, loneliness and social isolation. These psychological consequences can contribute to a decline in physical and emotional health.

In my years of practicing family law and mediating family law cases, I have learned that parties going through gray divorce often need more compassion and support. They appreciate an approach where they are in control and they are able to minimize legal fees, since finances are likely to be a very big concern. With that in mind, my goal is to reach an agreeable outcome where both parties are satisfied they are in a position to rebuild their financial footing and reestablish a plan for their future. If you and your clients need help navigating the unique circumstances of gray divorce, mediation is an ideal forum. You can count on my nine years of exclusively mediating family law cases, following my 18-year career as a litigator, to bring creative and viable solutions to the table.