Despite the common assumption that young and middle-aged couples are more inclined to end their marriage, the so-called “gray divorce” has always been a quite common phenomenon. In fact, researchers have found out that its rates tripled since 1990.
Well, no one is immune to the dead marriage syndrome, adultery, or abuse – the most common grounds for ending marital relationships among Americans. Moreover, a variety of midlife struggles connected with parents, children, their own coming of age, retirement, etc., causes even more reasons to dissolve the marriage later in life. Besides, people who divorce at 60 or over have already undergone a whole lot of issues in their relations and spent too many years contemplating this decision, which makes them more prepared for it.
At the same time, late-life divorce is fraught with a range of considerations and challenges unique to older adults. The very first reason it may be quite troublesome is the fact that long-term marriages often entail certain joint retirement plans and benefits as well as high-net-worth property, while financial recovery may take longer at this age.
In this publication, we will offer a gray divorce definition, shed some light on its main reasons, important issues for consideration, and possible alternatives, and try to answer the question, “Is it better to divorce before or after retirement?”
Table of Contents
What is a Gray Divorce?
“Gray divorce” is the term used to refer to couples who decide to end their marriage in later life, typically after the age of 50. They are also often dubbed as “silver-splitters” and the phenomenon as “diamond divorce.”
Late-life divorce rates tend to be quite high, having risen considerably in the last decades. According to the research, in 1970, 7.8% of adults ending their marriage were aged 50 or older; in 1990, the figure rose to 8.7%, and by 2010, it was 27%, and it reached 36% in 2019.
Moreover, the proportion between the age groups is also changing. While the percentage of middle-aged (50-64 years) divorcees tended to stay relatively flat since 1970 and even lowered from 2010 to 2019, the number of divorcing older adults (65+) got steadily higher, especially in the last decade. Therefore, gray divorce is not only getting more common, it is also “graying,” becoming more widespread among those who divorce after 60 or even tend to divorce after 70 years old.
So, what guides people divorcing after 35+ years of marriage? And what challenges may divorce after retirement pose? Let’s figure it out.
Grey Divorce Reasons
Many factors may lead to the decision to divorce for older couples as well as for young ones, from the suddenly uncovered irreconcilable differences to life-threatening violence. However, apart from reasons to terminate long-term marital relationships, newly opened opportunities are also noteworthy and can explain the rising rates of breakups among older adults.
Changed Societal Norms and Trends
- Divorce Destigmatization. Nowadays, divorce is more tolerated and less stigmatized than it used to be in the past, which lowers social pressure and gives more freedom of choice. As a result, baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, experience reduced feelings of shame and worries about judgment so typical for their parents.
- Woman’s Role. Today’s society is more tolerant towards the changed women’s status and recognizes their financial autonomy and emotional independence. Previously, a wife could hardly leave since it was very frightening to meet that awful first day with nowhere to go, no money even for a hotel room, and hard-to-find work opportunities. Today, most women are working and earning enough money, which gives them a choice and ability to manage their own lives.
- Economic Improvements. Baby boomers usually have good pensions and valuable real estate nowadays. They are more secure than those who retired used to be in the past and can afford to get a divorce.
- Enhanced Longevity. Researchers suggest that an important reason for divorce in late adulthood is the increase in average life expectancy. With the opportunity to live a longer and more quality life, people expect more from their retirement years and plan how to spend it. Very often, their marriage does not meet their expectations or fit the vision of their future.
As people change with time, not always do both spouses grow in the same direction. The changed habits, perspectives, interests, desires, and goals are often a cause of planning for divorce 10 years after the wedding or even less. So, it’s no wonder that older adults choose to terminate their relationship if they age at a different rate.
Some of them take up new hobbies and passions not always shared by their spouses, which leads to a deteriorated relationship and even divorce.
In addition, early retirement makes spouses find themselves living together around the clock after many years of seeing each other only a few hours a day. It suddenly turns out that they have nothing in common but reciprocal irritation.
Empty nest syndrome makes the differences between spouses even more noticeable and striking. As soon as their children have left home, they suddenly realize that there’s nothing that keeps them together anymore. It appears that all those years, their kids were the only topic that fostered their communication and interaction.
Everyday life is also changing, transforming perspectives and circumstances. Retirement of only one of the spouses, health concerns, mid-life crises, and other age-specific issues may often be a trigger. Moreover, if the marriage is already cracked by other factors, these matters often become one of the gray divorce reasons.
In addition, the age difference often becomes more apparent in adulthood. Indeed, while ten years is nothing when you’re in your 20s and 30s, it makes a huge difference when you’re 70 and 80. In such cases, the younger partner may get horrified by the thought that they now need to spend the rest of their life caring for the older spouse.
Infidelity & Lack of Intimacy
Lack of intimacy is probably one of the most common answers to the question, “Why do couples divorce after 10 years in marriage or more?” When passion and affection fade away and it’s getting harder to find the common ground, physical or emotional infidelity becomes a “solution” to some spouses.
According to the statistics, even in adulthood, the biggest insult is when your partner replaces you with someone younger. While men are in the lead in this respect, women face a serious crisis when they find out about it, and divorce often becomes the only way out.
According to the survey conducted by Abby Rodman, LICSW, the biggest cause of divorce for middle-aged and older women was emotional or psychological abuse. Although this type of abuse is no less dangerous than physical, many women tend to put up with it while children are still young enough to stay home. The excuse they often have is: “He is a lousy husband but a wonderful parent. Kids need the father.” Only after their children grow up and leave home do they feel they “have a moral right” to file for divorce.
The wealth accumulated during the marriage and the acquired differences in spouses make financial conflicts more common at an older age. Disagreements and disputes over investments, spending habits and unforeseen expenses, budgeting, debt handling, retirement funds spending, and power struggles often destabilize the relationships. However, although elderly divorce for financial reasons is quite common, they are only a pretext in most cases, while the root cause often lies much deeper.
In addition, late adulthood is also associated with a range of serious health issues that can be quite burdensome. Indeed, acute or chronic illnesses disrupt both spouses’ lives and often cause a myriad of not only personal but also financial struggles, forcing couples to end their marriage due to rather mercenary considerations. For example, some couples that face issues with Alzheimer’s divorce to protect assets. However, no lawyer would guarantee this protection since everything depends on a number of factors in your specific case.
While it’s quite hard to define exactly what is the main reason seniors get divorced, some common trends can be very obvious. It’s wrong to think that older adults have nothing more to desire and strive for since their life is not over. Moreover, all the enumerated reasons are quite explicable and can serve as a good answer to “Why do couples divorce after 40 years of marriage?”
Things to Consider Before Taking Action
While senior divorce is quite common and can be perfectly justified, it also often comes with regrets and losses, so thorough considerations about the impacts and consequences are indispensable. Before you take wing and burn the bridges behind you, take some time to contemplate the future and weigh all the pros and cons.
Figure out your own reasons, aims, and possible outcomes you may get in the best and the worst case. Think about the people your decision will affect and its emotional, social, and financial influence on everyone, including you. Consider the shortcomings and benefits of divorce after 50 and calculate who loses more in a divorce.
Marriage dissolution is not only expensive in terms of legal fees; it will also reduce your financial reserves. Due to the property division divorce entails, you are sure to be left with about half of everything you got used to: property, retirement funds, overall family budget, etc. Considering the living expenses you’ll need to face on your own and age-related reduced earning potential, weigh all the financial implications, including asset division, alimony, retirement and social security benefits, employability, etc.
- Division of Property
As stipulated in Fla. Stat. § 61.075, Florida courts are governed by the “equitable distribution” principle when dividing assets under a dual-property system. The system views property as either marital, which was acquired by the couple during the marriage, or separate – non-marital assets and liabilities owned by either party before the marriage or received as a gift or inheritance. While separate property is most often not subject to division and is left with the owner, marital property in Florida is divided equitably between the spouses, the way the court deems fair, not necessarily equally.
When dividing marital property, the Florida court considers both spouses’ financial situation, sources of income, employability and earning potential, contribution to the marriage and each other’s educational and earning opportunities, and a range of other factors.
- Spousal Support in Long-Term Marriages
Florida alimony laws recognize temporary, durational, rehabilitative, and bridge-the-gap alimony. The decision to grant spousal support in Florida is normally based on marriage duration as well as both spouses’ need for and ability to pay spousal support, age, and mental and physical health.
The most substantive type of Florida divorce alimony is durational, which may only be awarded to couples who have been married for more than 3 years. According to Fla. Stat. § 61.08(8)(b), durational alimony cannot exceed 75% of the long-term (no less than 20 years) or 60% of the moderate-term (10-20 years) marriage length.
- Dividing Retirement Benefit
Under Florida law, retirement plans and programs are considered marital property, which means that they are also subject to division. Normally, when dividing pension and retirement benefits, the court follows the same equitable distribution principles (Fla. Stat. § 61.076).
However, the process is very complicated due to the complexity of defining the marital portion of retirement accounts that should be divided. Besides, benefit plans for retirement in the divorce process are closely interrelated with alimony. In any case, you’ll need to obtain a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) approved by the court, in addition to the Final Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage, that stipulates the terms of retirement benefits division.
If you wonder, “How long do you have to be married to get half of retirement?”, Fla. Stat. § 61.076(2) specifies that you need at least 10 years of marriage to be eligible for your spouse’s retirement benefits. Still, the court will decide if you can get half of it or less.
- Dividing Social Security Benefits in a Late-Life Divorce
Although Social Security benefits are not divisible under any state’s law, you can still be entitled to your ex’s share based on their earnings. According to the United States Social Security Administration (SSA), the following conditions must be met:
- Your marriage was not shorter than 10 years;
- You did not remarry;
- You are at least 62 years old;
- Your own benefit is lower than the benefit based on your ex-spouse’s work;
- Your ex-spouse is entitled to Social Security or disability benefits.
Even if your ex remarries, you can still collect your divorced spouse’s Social Security benefits.
For older adults, it may be essential to know, “How much does a surviving divorced spouse get from social security?” If your marriage lasted for at least 10 years, your divorced spouse’s Survivor benefits would be the same as for the surviving spouse without affecting the benefits payable to other survivors. However, the exact amount cannot be specified since it depends on the number of Social Security credits earned by the diseased through their work.
Unfortunately, health tends to deteriorate with age. In fact, the National Institute on Aging states that older patients have at least one chronic health condition to deal with. While the court takes this issue into account when dividing property and awarding alimony, access to Medicare and a sufficient support system should be considered before making any divorce decisions.
The problem is that people with acute and chronic illnesses often struggle with self-care. After you divorce and stay on your own, there will be no one to accompany you to the doctor’s, remind you to take medications, or call an ambulance if needed. In addition, divorce-related stress can weaken the immune system, adding even more mental and physical health concerns and the need for support. It is best to plan how you will address these matters before taking action.
Divorce will surely affect you emotionally, bringing a novel state of solitude and the need to adjust to it:
- Firstly, decades of marriage have definitely resulted in something big and solid created by you and your spouse. Even if it was full of arguments and imperfections, you still have a lot of positive memories and experiences to share. When you lose it, you may feel like the ground was cut from under your feet.
- Secondly, divorce influences social connections significantly. Many friends and relatives are forced to take sides, which may diminish your social circle and even cause isolation. The established support systems are often lost since many contemporaries have died or moved out of the state.
- Besides, it may be more challenging to establish new friendships or romantic relations at this age, especially if mobility opportunities are limited. Additionally, even new connections may not last long when they collide with the emotional baggage you have accumulated throughout your life.
As a result, after many years of marriage, living with someone, and constant interactions, this loneliness and isolation may seem devastating, contributing to mental disorders like depression. It does not, however, mean that you will not be able to find friends or that your current social circle will disappear from your life.
Despite the common assumption that adult children accept their parents’ divorce more easily, it has been proven that they are also traumatized though differently. While experiencing a whole whirlwind of negative emotions concerning the end of their habitual family, they often end up in a deteriorated relationship with one or both parents.
For example, the research on divorce consequences shows that aged fathers are less likely to get care and support from their adult children than mothers.
Adult children of divorce may feel deceived by the image of a happy family created by their parents and get disappointed in the family institution, which will have a long-lasting impact on their own ability to build relationships.
If they are still in college, asset division may have a negative financial influence on their academic and social life, aggravating their resentment against their parents.
Besides, adult children may step in as fixers or advisers, hindering your divorce or remarriage decisions.
All these tricky issues should be thoroughly considered when you plan to divorce after 50. Perhaps at some point, you’ll ask, “Is getting a divorce worth it?” It is if the pros outweighs the cons for you.
If you are firm in your decision, devise a strategy for addressing these issues and adjusting to your new life if something does not go as expected. Legal and psychological help is a good choice to assist you in navigating these matters.
What is the Alternative to a Gray Divorce?
Surviving divorce after a long marriage is hard emotionally and financially. If, after examining the above-listed issues, you’ve got some doubts but the relationship is still far from perfect, consider some alternatives to gray divorce:
- Counseling. Acknowledging the problem and trying to resolve it is the first step to take. Professional psychological assistance can prevent the need for late-life divorce and starting over On the other hand, marriage counseling can help you sort things out and affirm the final decision, whatever it is. Even if it does not save your marriage, it will give you a feeling of fulfillment and facilitate amicable dissolution.
- Open Marriage. Agreeing to romantic relationships with other people can be a good solution to prevent adultery, sexual dissatisfaction, and related conflicts. However, it may be unacceptable for some couples based on personal or religious considerations. If you believe both of you may be open to the option, it is worth discussing.
- Living Apart Together (LAT). This new relationship trend may be a perfect option for people tired of seeing each other 24/7 after retirement but too connected to accept separating after 30 years of marriage or more. Psychologists say that LAT can often be a solution for staying together.
Legal separation could be a perfect alternative to divorce since it releases you from the necessity to live together while not ending your marriage judicially and having no financial impact on it. Unfortunately, such an option is not practiced in Florida. Couples can still separate voluntarily, without any related court orders, which would resemble LAT.
Undoubtedly, life after a divorce for a man over 60 or a woman after 50 could be a bit more challenging than for younger people due to a myriad of age-related issues. Still, it’s not the end but only the beginning of a new chapter.
Life after a gray divorce can be even brighter, offering countless opportunities for taking up new hobbies, exploring new avenues for self-fulfillment, traveling, acquiring new skills, or creating an outright crazy bucket list. Just remember that it’s never too embarrassing or too late to ask for help from family, friends, or a professional if needed.