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“Gray Divorces” Are on the Rise, Driven by Baby Boomers

November 30, 2020 (4 min read)

The wedding vow “till death do us part” is going by the wayside for a steadily growing number of married couples who are 50 and over. So-called “gray divorces” are becoming increasingly common in the United States, as many couples of a certain age decide that they can’t wait any longer to go their separate ways.

Ten out of every 1,000 people aged 50 and older were divorced in 2015 – double the rate of that age group 25 years earlier, according to a Pew Research Center study of U.S. Census data. And for those over 65, the increase was even higher – it had roughly tripled since 1990.

Several factors have contributed to the rise of gray divorce over the past 30 years. In its 2017 study, the Pew Research Center linked increases in gray divorce to the aging of baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. This group experienced high levels of divorce during their young adulthood, and relationship instability has carried over into their subsequent marriages. Given that remarriages tend to be less stable than first marriages, the divorce rate for people 50 or older in second or subsequent marriages is twice the rate of those who have only been married once.

As with anyone experiencing divorce, those ending their marriages after 50 should focus on rising above the tough emotions and thinking clearly about what they want their futures to look like. Trustworthy and knowledgeable advisors, including divorce lawyers, financial consultants and estate planning attorneys, can help sort out all the complicated issues, find ways to minimize risk and help put individuals on a sound post-divorce path. 

 Financial Implications of Gray Divorce

At any age, divorce can have negative financial impacts. Gray divorce, however, tends to exacerbate those issues. Aside from it generally being more expensive for two people to live separately than together, gray divorce may lead to even more financial insecurity as individuals are less likely to be working and have steady income streams as they get older. And as they age, individuals have a shorter window of opportunity in which they can recover financially after separating with a spouse.  

As is the case with those who divorce at younger ages, gray divorcees tend to have less wealth than those who remain married, with divorcing couples over 50 having only one-fifth of the assets of married couples in the same age group. Compared to married couples, divorced women over 63 have relatively low Social Security benefits and high poverty rates.

In addition to the standard concerns that come with divorce at any age, such as alimony payments, tax implications and equitable distribution of assets, there are also discrete issues that divorcing couples over 50 must address. These challenges can include the division of retirement benefits, more complicated marital estates, issues over beneficiaries, health insurance and Medicare benefits and general healthcare expenses.

Even if only one spouse has retirement assets, the funds must be shared at divorce. The rules for division of retirement savings differ depending on the types of accounts holding the assets. 401(k)s and pensions, traditional and Roth IRAs and annuities all follow different rules in terms of dividing assets in the event of a divorce.

A qualified domestic relations order, or QDRO, is one mechanism by which certain employee retirement plans can be divided. Issued by courts, QDROs recognize joint marital ownership interests in the employee benefit or pension plan. While such orders may be used in any divorce, they’re more likely in gray divorces, where retirement savings tend to be larger.

While matters like child custody and visitation typically aren’t issues in gray divorce, adult children often feel the impact of their parents’ divorce, both emotionally and financially. Some parents may need financial assistance from their children at a time when many young adults already are struggling to make it on their own. In addition to offering financial support, some adult children of divorce feel the added responsibility of care for each of their parents separately, when they were previously able to take care of both together.

Estate planning and postnuptial agreements can help address some of these concerns for divorcing couples and set expectations for their families. An estate plan generally includes a will, medical and financial powers of attorney and an advanced care directive, all of which work together to legally protect an individual’s wishes for their estate and family after their death. A postnuptial agreement is a legal contract signed after the date of marriage that specifies how assets would be divided if a couple were to divorce, including property or other assets each spouse acquired individually, both before and during the marriage, as well as any jointly owned assets. If a couple has incurred any debts, either together or individually, the agreement can spell out who’s responsible for repaying them in the event of divorce.

Moving Forward

While the greater frequency of remarriage among baby boomers partially explains the increase in gray divorce, a significant portion of couples over 50 who have been married for at least 30 years also are divorcing. People are living longer, and both spouses often have had careers that afford them financially independence. Research also has shown that with the stigma of divorce decreasing, those who are no longer happily married may be more compelled to pursue an uncoupled life. 

While all divorces must follow the same laws and guidelines, gray divorces often involve many other factors that make the dissolution of a marriage more complicated. Lawyers, mediators and other seasoned advisors can work closely with their clients to address those matters and move forward into a more secure post-divorce future.