What is “Gray Divorce?”
Gray divorce is the demographic trend of older (“gray-haired”) adults in long term marriages to get a divorce.
While getting divorced later in life used to be fairly rare, today that has changed … a lot!
According to the Pew Research Center, the divorce rate for those over 50 doubled from 1990 to 2015. Among those over 65, the divorce rate roughly tripled during the same time period.
While the divorce rate for older Americans seems to have stabilized now, Baby Boomers are still getting divorced at an unprecedented rate.
The question is … Why?
Why Are More Older Adults Getting Divorced These Days?
While social scientists have noted the rising divorce rate among older adults, no one has seriously studied the reasons behind this phenomenon. Even still, certain causes seem more likely than others.
One of the main causes may be that people today are living longer than they did in the past. Instead of looking forward to 5 or 10 “golden years” after retirement, many people now are expecting to live for 20 or 30 years after they retire. That’s a long time to stay in an unhappy marriage.
People also expect more from life today. After having spent a lifetime raising children and caring for aging parents, older adults are starting to ask, “What about me?” They're not content with living in an empty nest that feels as empty in their hearts as it does in their homes.
Another question many people ask once they’ve retired and they look at their spouse is, “Who are you?” After having grown apart for years (maybe decades) more older people are less willing to spend what’s left of their life with someone they barely even know anymore.
Yet another cause of gray divorce may be that older people have a greater sense of their own mortality. They’ve seen their parents and their peers die. They know that they have more years behind them than they likely have ahead of them. And they don’t want to waste the time that they have in a marriage where they’re unhappy and unfulfilled.
Another possible contributing cause to the high divorce rate among the “over 50” crowd today is that many of them have already been divorced before. The divorce rate for second marriages is substantially higher than the divorce rate for first marriages. That, too, may contribute to the growing trend of divorce after 50.
No matter what the cause of grey divorce may be, though, the bigger question is how to deal with it.
What Makes Gray Divorce Different?
While divorce at any age is difficult, divorcing later in life is qualitatively different than divorcing earlier in life. The reason is simple: finite resources.
When you are older you have a limited amount of time, money, and energy to recoup whatever you lose in your divorce.
When you get divorced in your 50’s, 60's, and beyond, you no longer have decades to rebuild your finances or your life. You may already be retired and your income may be fixed. Or you may have been hoping to retire soon. Either way, your career has likely peaked and your income is probably not going to go up in any serious way.
What’s more, because of your age, your employment opportunities are often limited. Many businesses don’t want to hire a brand new employee who will be ready to retire in a few years.
To make matters worse, if you’ve been unemployed throughout your marriage, getting a job after you’ve been out of the work force for decades can be daunting. Any job you would get will probably not pay well, at least at first.
All of that makes the financial consequences of divorce significantly more damaging for older divorcing couples than for those who divorce at a younger age.
Getting divorced later in life also makes the divorce process itself more excruciating. Like anything else, time becomes more precious when you have less of it. Spending years in a long, drawn out divorce when you’re 60 is significantly more stressful and irritating than it is when you’re 30. (Although, in fairness, going through a protracted, ugly divorce is never fun!)
50 Shades of Grey Divorce
In spite of the many differences between getting divorced later in life versus getting divorced when you are younger, one thing is true no matter when you get divorced. In spite of what the media would have you believe, there is no “one size fits all” “typical” divorce.
Every divorce – AND every grey divorce -- is different.
Some older divorcing couples have been married since they were in their 20s. Over the years, they grew apart. Once their kids were grown and gone they may have realized that they had little left in common except the past. So they divorce.
Other couples may have been miserable together for decades. One spouse may have become an alcoholic or had an affair – or had a series of affairs! Finally, the other spouse gets to the point where s/he has had enough. So they divorce.
There are gray divorces that involve no children, adult children, or minor children. (Yes. It happens.) There are gray divorces from first marriages, and from second or third marriages.
Some older couples are well off. Others are not. Some have saved amply for their retirement and are in a solid financial position. Others have lived beyond their means for years and find themselves deeply in debt.
In short, there are as many different “kinds” of gray divorces as there are gray divorcees (or “silver splitters” as they are called in the U.K.!) Assuming that all gray divorces are exactly the same just because the people who are getting divorced have been alive longer than their younger counterparts is an enormous mistake.
What Do You Do if You or Someone You Love is Facing a Gray Divorce?
If gray divorce is, or may be, something that you have to deal with, the first thing you need to remember is that, young or old, you are human!
Your divorce is going to suck!
All divorces suck.
You don’t get a free pass from the misery that comes with divorce just because you’ve been alive for more than 5 or 6 decades and your kids are grown.
At the same time, certain issues will be more or less important to you, depending upon how old you are when you get a divorce.
8 Critical Areas You MUST Understand When You Divorce Later in Life
1. Cash Flow.
Surviving a divorce after 50 requires more than just getting a good divorce settlement. You also need to make sure that you bring in enough money every month to pay your bills. In other words, you need positive cash flow.
How do you figure out if you're going to have positive post-divorce cash flow? It starts by making a detailed monthly post-divorce budget BEFORE your divorce is final!
If you can see from your budget that you are not going to have enough money after your divorce to pay your bills you have three choices: make more, spend less, or live off your assets.
Making more may mean that you need to get a job. (Yes. That’s frightening!) Spending less may mean seriously downsizing your lifestyle. And living off your assets only lasts for so long.
Once you spend down your assets, they’re gone. So, unless you can afford to live off your assets without risking that you will run out of money before you die, burning through your assets at warp speed after your divorce is a really bad idea.
2. Kids. (Yes, They're Still an Issue!)
While everyone understands that divorce affects minor children, many people assume that getting a divorce later in life won’t affect their adult children.
It doesn’t matter how old your kids are. Your divorce will change their family forever. It will affect their relationships with you and your spouse. It may also affect their finances moving forward.
If your divorce leaves you (or your spouse) penniless who do you think will keep you from living on the streets? Your kids!
If your kids have to support you, your divorce will affect their finances. (Think about that when you’re negotiating your divorce settlement!)
Your divorce will also affect your kids emotionally. Adult children of divorce often have problems dealing with the demise of their parents’ marriage. It rocks their sense of security. It undermines their faith in marriage as an institution. It also shakes their own relationships to the core.
The bottom line is that you probably can’t shield your kids from all of the effects of your divorce. But if you pay attention, you may be able to at least soften the blow in significant ways.
The amount of taxes you have to pay on the assets you get in a divorce can dramatically affect your bottom line. If you don’t understand that, then you may be surprised at what’s left after you pay Uncle Sam.
What’s more, if you were expecting to live off of your assets after you divorced, then the amount of money you actually get after taxes matters a lot!
While explaining all of the tax ramifications of divorce in one relative short blog post is impossible, there are a few basics you absolutely need to know. For example, you need to know the difference between pre-tax assets and post-tax assets.
Pre-tax assets are those assets that you HAVE NOT paid taxes on. Post tax assets are those assets that you HAVE paid taxes on. A Roth IRA is a post-tax asset. A regular IRA is a pre-tax asset.
Getting $100,000 from a regular IRA will not put $100,000 in your pocket. It will put $100,000 minus income taxes in your pocket. Getting $100,000 from a Roth IRA, on the other hand, will give you $100,000.
If you don’t pay attention to how taxes will affect your divorce settlement, you may find yourself dealing with a much different financial picture after your divorce than you had planned.
4. Spousal Support (a/k/a Alimony or Maintenance)
Spousal support can play a huge role in many later-in-life divorces.
In Illinois, divorcing spouses who have been married for 20+ years can get (or have to pay) maintenance for the same number of years they were married for, or for an indefinite period of time. When you’ve been married for decades, that’s a significant amount of time!
In other states, the alimony laws may not be quite so clear. But they can be equally as impactful. (Check with a divorce lawyer in your area about the alimony laws in your state!)
Paying long term maintenance can be a sizeable obstacle in divorce negotiations. So can securing those payments.
When someone is going to have to pay spousal support after divorce s/he also has to make sure that there is enough money to keep making those payments even after s/he dies. Most people do that by buying a life insurance policy on the paying spouse’s life.
But getting a life insurance policy after 50 (or 60!) can be expensive or impossible.
If the spouse paying support has a serious health condition, s/he may not be able to buy life insurance at all. Or, s/he may find that the cost of buying the insurance is totally off the charts! Because of that, securing maintenance is often a much bigger challenge for older couples than it is for younger ones.
5. Health Care.
The older you get, the more important health insurance and health care in general, becomes. Unfortunately, the older you get the more expensive it is to buy that health insurance!
Unless you are 65 and are covered by Medicare, you need to find some kind of health insurance after divorce that fits into your budget. (Even if you are covered by Medicare, you may need supplemental health insurance as well!)
The mistake many people make is that they don’t investigate their health insurance options until their divorce is almost done. They assume that they can get COBRA coverage at the same price as what their spouse is currently paying for his/her insurance.
When they discover that’s not true, and they find out that their health insurance premiums are going to cost more than their mortgage, their entire divorce settlement gets turned upside down.
What’s even worse is not investigating the cost of health care until AFTER you’re divorced! By that time, the die is cast. You need to find your own health insurans AND you need to apply for it within 60 days after your divorce is final.
That’s why it’s so important if you’re divorcing later in life that you work with a good health insurance broker as soon as possible. That broker can help you find and understand your options …and keep you from tearing your hair out in frustration!
Getting a divorce after 50 can throw a giant monkey wrench into your retirement plans. Even if you scrimped and scraped so that you had enough money to retire at 60, getting a divorce can change everything.
In the best case, you will only lose half of your retirement accounts. In the worst case, you could lose more.
So the first thing you have to realize if you’re getting a divorce later in life is that you might not be able to retire as soon as you thought you would. Or, you may not be able to retire at all. (Yes. Ouch!)
In order to figure out your retirement options, it helps to work with a GOOD divorce financial planner. S/he can run projections showing you how long your retirement money is likely to last. S/he can also tell you how long you have to work before you can start drawing on your retirement money.
Finally, as with health insurance, it’s important to get complete financial information BEFORE you finalize your divorce. That way you can adjust your negotiations based upon a realistic picture of your financial future.
7. Big Expenses (a/k/a Money Suckers).
If you are going to have to live on a budget after your divorce, you need to eliminate as many large, unexpected expenses as you can before your divorce is final.
Sadly, the two things that cause the most large, unexpected expenses tend to be two things people love very much: their house and their adult children. While you can continue to love both after your divorce, you may not be able to continue to support either.
Although most people think of their house as an investment, it is also a liability. Not only do you have to pay the mortgage, taxes, and insurance to keep it, but you also have to pay for maintenance and repairs. All of that can send your budget into a tailspin.
As much as you may love your house, selling it before you’re divorced can may make a lot of financial sense. That way you and your spouse will share any last minute repair costs as well as the closing costs.
Similarly, your post-divorce budget may not have room in it to support your adult kids. Even if you’ve been supporting them for decades, your divorce may force them to finally have to stand on their own two feet.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. (Although they’re probably not going to like it and may resent you enormously, especially at first!)
8. The Loss of a Lifetime Identity.
After you’ve been married for years – or decades – you think of yourself as a married person. You have married friends. You do the things that married people do. Like so many other married people, you dreamed of growing old with someone by your side. … or, at least you had those dreams once upon a time.
When you get divorced, all of that changes.
Your married friends will either take sides or avoid both you AND your spouse like the plague. It almost seems like they’re afraid that your divorce is catching, and that if they continue to spend time with you, they’ll end up divorced too.
Worst of all, for a while (maybe a long while!) you’ll question who you are. You won’t know what you’re “supposed” to do, or how you’re “supposed” to act. You will look back and start questioning your whole life, and everything you thought you knew. Looking forward is no better.
Suddenly, you’re not sure what your future is going to look like anymore. The vision you had for how your life was going to go just evaporated like a puddle on hot cement.
As if all that wasn’t enough, divorce will probably change your status, too.
When you were married, you lived in a certain area. You drove certain cars and had a specific kind of lifestyle.
After your divorce, you may not be able to afford any of that anymore.
Most people’s lifestyle takes a hit when they get divorced – at least for a while.
You may no longer be able to afford the things you had grown accustomed to having. If you still have kids at home, they may not be able to participate in expensive sports or attend private schools. Your adult children may have to learn to stand on their own, without help from mom and dad. Instead of shopping at Whole Foods, you may find yourself in Costco.
All of those things require a profound adjustment. They require you to change your mindset and adjust your identity. While younger divorcing people may have to make those kinds of changes too, it’s still much easier to make those shifts when you’ve only been married for two or three years than it is to make them when you’ve been married for twenty or thirty years.
Surviving a Gray Divorce
Surviving a gray divorce is in many ways more challenging than surviving a divorce at any other stage of life.
Yet, in spite of the difficulties, you still have an extraordinary amount of control – much more than you may think. The problem is, the control you have both starts and ends with you.
You can choose how you will handle your divorce, and how you will move forward into your new life (or not). You can choose what you will tell yourself about your divorce, and what your divorce will mean to you.
If you choose to tell yourself that your life is over because you are old, broke, and divorced, then you can expect the rest of your life to be fairly miserable.
If you choose to tell yourself that, even though you may not have expected to be divorced at this stage of your life, you’re still going to make the best of your situation, then the rest of your life can actually be quite amazing.
The choice really is up to you.
Instead of giving up in despair, you can work on creating financial security for yourself – no matter how old you are! You can let go of the life you thought you were going to have and start creating the life that you truly want from this point forward.
Yes, it will be a different life than the one you had. But different doesn’t necessarily mean worse.
You can make new friends, find new interests, and start to LIVE again. You can take yourself from victim, to victor. But to do that, you have to make a choice.
You have to DECIDE to rise up and meet the challenge that grey divorce raises. And you have to DECIDE to create a new life that will bring you the happiness you both want and deserve.
What will you decide?
This post was originally published on August 17, 2016 and updated on January 21, 2021.