Although the U.S. divorce rate is one of the highest in the world, it's been declining since the 1980s. One demographic group that has bucked that trend is couples ending their marriages after 50. The rate of "gray divorce" in the U.S. more than doubled between 1990 and 2019. For those ages 65 and older, the rate roughly tripled in that same timeframe.
The decision to split after 50 has immediate and lasting impacts on retirement plans, standard of living, and relationships. If you're considering divorce late in life, it might help to know what to expect legally, financially, and emotionally to smoothly transition into your next chapter.
As the year 2000 (or Y2K) approached, doomsayers predicted that a computer glitch would take down airplanes and cause a nuclear war when the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve 1999. Thankfully, that didn't happen.
What no one saw coming at the start of the new millennium was a dramatic increase in divorce rates among couples in their 50s and older. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) first used the term "gray divorce" to describe this demographic shift in a 2004 study.
You'll also see terms like "silver splitters" and "diamond divorce" used to describe the spike in Baby Boomers ending long-term marriages—when their hair had likely turned gray. This enduring phenomenon is sometimes called the "gray divorce revolution."
Gen X has joined the over 50 crowd, but it's not yet known if they'll divorce at as high a rate as their elders. In a 2021 study, less than half of the Gen Xers surveyed indicated "marital satisfaction." That number could be a signal of things to come.
How common is divorce late in life? The overall gray divorce rate jumped from 4.9 in 1990 to 10.3 in 2017—or from about five for every thousand people to 10 in a thousand. In raw numbers, that translates to 344,755 gray divorces in 2017 alone.
The numbers reveal other details:
The reasons older couples divorce include relationship issues common to all generations—for instance lack of intimacy, infidelity, and financial troubles. But what are some of the unique factors that explain the urge to divorce late in life?
Empty nest syndrome is a popular term used to describe the loss and sadness parents feel when the last child leaves the home. Reactions to this life event vary by gender and cultural background. It can be a difficult transition that happens as couples are also managing midlife struggles such as menopause, andropause, and caring for elderly parents.
Vagdevi Meunier, Psy.D., is a Texas-based licensed psychologist with more than 30 years of experience in relationship counseling. Some of the clients she sees are considering a gray divorce. The tendency for women to initiate the discussion holds true in her practice.
"When they have the empty nest happen, there is sort of this inner revolution that pops up," says Dr. Meunier. "They think, ‘I spent the last 25 years sacrificing my needs to meet the needs of my husband and my children. Where do I come in? When is it my turn?'"
Dr. Meunier points out that for some women, it might be their last chance to climb the corporate ladder at a time when their husbands are looking to retire. If expectations don't align, the outcome is sometimes divorce.
In general, women have higher life expectancy than men. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data show that in 2018 expectancy was 81.2 years for females and 76.2 for males—while the average life expectancy between sexes was 69.9 years in 1959.
Faced with the thought of staying in an unsatisfying marriage for 20-30 years while still in good health, some couples choose to end it.
Spending 24/7 with your spouse after retirement can sound enjoyable, but what if it's not? Couples may find that their interests and goals are no longer in sync. One may be a homebody while the other wants to travel the world. Newfound incompatibility can fuel the desire to split.
The likelihood of developing a chronic or acute illness that can disrupt our lives increases as we age. That includes cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer's disease. A 2014 University of Michigan study found that 31% of gray marriages ended in divorce when at least one partner was seriously ill.
Health problems can bring a multitude of personal and financial struggles such as increased stress levels, loss of sex drive, and the cost of paying for caregivers. The resulting upheaval can contribute to the decision to end a marriage.
A 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling gave same-sex couples across the nation the right to legally marry. It also gave them the right to divorce–something that was in legal limbo because same-sex marriages were not recognized in every state.
Research on LGBTQ divorce in the U.S. is in short supply. A 2014 study based on same-sex divorce in New Hampshire and Vermont found that the rate was comparable to that of heterosexual couples.
Marriage equality didn't put an end to anti-LGBTQ stigma. Family disapproval and employment discrimination are examples of stressors that can contribute to LGBTQ divorce before and after the age of 50.
The legal process of divorce is consistent no matter the couple's age. But divorcing late in life brings a unique set of financial and emotional challenges, including the possibility of substantially changing the standard of living of both spouses.
By the time you reach midlife, you might have made significant investments in a home and your retirement fund. Splitting those assets can make it a challenge to afford living expenses. Plus, there are fewer working years remaining to make up the financial shortfall.
A 2020 study found that gray divorced men and women each saw an immediate 50% drop in wealth. However, women saw a 45% decrease in their standard of living compared to a 21% dip for men.
"I think people underestimate what their costs will be going forward after a divorce," says Jen Kane Paterson, CDFA®, financial advisor, and director of wealth management at Waterway Wealth Advisors. "It's important, especially for women, to slow down and do the homework before accepting any financial settlement offer," she says.
Kane Paterson takes a three-phase approach to helping clients financially plan for a gray divorce:
Here are some issues that can shape finances after a gray divorce:
For the lower- or non-wage-earning spouse, Kane Paterson advises taking a close look at how marital property could be divided.
"It's prudent in some cases to negotiate for more than half of the assets, even if it means giving up alimony," she says. "You can make that money work for you and have a more predictable stream of income to secure your future."
Divorce takes a toll on all involved. A 2013 study revealed that the physical and mental health consequences for some men can be serious.
Compared to their married counterparts, divorced men are more prone to conditions like cancer and heart disease. They're also more likely to suffer from depression and have a 39% higher occurrence of suicide.
"In gray divorce, one big struggle is loneliness," says Dr. Meunier. "Men often don't really have a natural support system in place."
Reaching out for help to learn coping skills, or to get treatment for depression, can bring relief for many people who might otherwise suffer in silence.
Ex-spouses may end up spread out over the country and even the world—straining bonds with their adult children. If there's ongoing hostility between the divorced couple, the fallout can derail family traditions.
"People who have adult children with their own kids really need to do some personal work to develop a friendship with their divorcing partner—so that grandchildren get some of the experiences that their parents' generation had," explains Dr. Meunier.
As the saying goes, "money changes everything." So, too, does a loss of income and savings. It might be necessary to downsize a primary living space after a gray divorce. Travel, dining, and entertainment may need to be pared back when maintaining a previous lifestyle is no longer possible.
On the social side, looking for a relationship in the era of dating websites and apps will be new to many. It may be harder to find a new mate for those who live somewhere like a small Midwestern town as opposed to in a major city.
If you think there's a chance to save your marriage—or the financial and emotional costs are too much to bear—there are alternatives to gray divorce. Here are some options to consider:
These are just a few of the available alternatives, and all aren't a fit for everyone. Marriages are unique, so allow yourself to create an arrangement that could work for your situation. And know that following through with a divorce is always an option, and the right one for some.
If you've decided that divorce is the best option for you, it could be time to act. The steps married people should take when they set out on the process are generally similar for all ages.
There are age-related differences, though. Here are some suggestions for issues often faced by couples ending a marriage after 50:
Every household is different, so you might want to consult a lawyer or divorce financial analyst to identify any additional preparations you should make.
The prospect of starting over in your 50s and beyond can be unsettling. But that doesn't mean you won't find joy in the next chapter of your life.
A University of North Carolina study on late-life divorce and life satisfaction identified factors that contribute to happiness. The most significant predictors of fulfillment were:
Those things may take time or not apply to you. So what are some other ways to create the best life possible after gray divorce?
Conventional wisdom says that starting new hobbies, working out, or taking a bucket list trip can speed post-breakup recovery. While those activities may help, Dr. Meunier believes that your actions before the divorce is final have the most to do with how you fare in the future.
"If you do the work to emotionally prepare yourself and your partner for moving on, it's not that hard," says Dr. Meunier. "Because you will do all the grieving, all of the hard work before you sign on the dotted line."
If that's not an option in your situation, ask for help when you need it. It doesn't matter whether you get it from family, friends, professionals, or a support group, just know that you don't have to go it alone.
For in-depth information on all key issues related to late-life divorce, see Divorce After 50: Your Guide to the Unique Legal and Financial Challenges by Janice Green (Nolo).