What Are “Gray Divorces,” and Why Are They Increasing?


While the divorce rate can be thought of as stable in the United States, it is on the rise in one segment of the population.  Adults above the age of 50 have experienced a rise in their rate of divorce. This is the phenomenon that is known as a “gray divorce.” The recent decision of Bill Gates and his wife to end their long marriage shone a media spotlight on this trend and brought coverage of the increase in gray divorces.

By definition, gray divorces are when an older couple decides to get divorced, often after many years of marriage. For now, gray divorces happen to members of the Baby Boomer generation, but Gen X’ers will also likely be affected as they reach the age of 50. There are structural factors that are causing older people to reassess their own situation and make a change if they feel it to be in their best interests. Perhaps ideas about marriage in society are changing. For whatever reason, gray divorces require different planning and strategy than divorces earlier in life.

The Rate of Gray Divorces Has Doubled

The statistics about gray divorces are staggering. From 1990-2010, the rate of divorce in people over the age of 50 doubled. By this point, one in every four people over the age of 50 are now divorced. This trend shows no sign of slowing down. If anything, the pandemic has made it worse, as married couples were forced to spend far more time together under the same roof without any break from each other.

In most cases, couples who get a gray divorce have been married to each other for a long time, often for decades. Of course, each couple has their own unique reasons for splitting up, but the reasons for these divorces seem to fall into patterns. There are a number of reasons why the number of gray divorces is on the rise:

  • People are living longer, giving them more time to find happiness in a second relationship when they find one.
  • The rise of online dating makes it easier than ever to date and find a new partner.
  • The same rise in online matchmaking also increases rates of infidelity in marriage.
  • Both spouses can now be financially independent since more women than ever have careers.
  • People are more willing to make a change for themselves based on what they feel that they deserve.
  • Couples often fight about money, and finances may be even more of an issue when the couple needs to increase their savings.
  • People are not encouraged to talk about their issues in the marriage, causing them to bring out issues that they had previously buried.

Of course, one of the main reasons for gray divorce is that people simply grow apart after many years of marriage. However, people have always grown apart in a relationship, and that trend is not increasing. Now, more people are making a conscious choice to get divorced.

Relationships take quite a bit of continuous work to maintain, and people can simply grow tired after a while. When the children leave the house, the couple that was previously united around raising the kids may find that they have little in common after so many years of focusing on others first.

Some people may have stayed together out of a sense of familiarity or fear of making a change. What may have become a matter of staying together out of convenience has now given way to a deliberate decision to get a divorce.

The Challenges of a Gray Divorce

Whatever the reason, gray divorces are challenging for a number of reasons. While more women are financially self-sufficient than ever due to more working outside the home, there may still be a disparity in the standard of living between the two spouses. One may be far better set up for retirement and the golden years than the other one. While divorces in younger years may revolve around custody and child support issues, gray divorces will be almost all about property division. Each spouse has one chance to secure their share of the marital estate to help them secure their retirement. Otherwise, there may not be much time to start again and rebuild assets, making retirement far more difficult. Spouses may need to work later in life.

With this in mind, gray divorces will require sound planning, both legal and financial. You cannot just simply get divorced later in life without a strategy planned beforehand. Otherwise, you could find yourself behind the proverbial eight-ball.

What You Need to Think About When Getting Divorced Later in Life

Here are some of the things that you would need to think about in a gray divorce:

  • Who gets to remain in the family home (if it even makes sense to keep a large home when the children have moved away)
  • Whether alimony is necessary (when one spouse earns far more than the other)
  • How the retirement accounts will be divided
  • Whether and how the pensions will be divided
  • How tax laws will impact the property that you are dividing
  • How each spouse will have health insurance after the divorce
  • Life insurance considerations

Before you make any of these decisions, you need to sit down with a divorce attorney and a financial planner. First, you need to understand your legal rights and how a court may divide the marital estate in the event of a divorce. Second, you should have a sound grasp of your financial situation and what you may need for the rest of your life. Third, you should review your estate plan and know how divorce will impact your plans to leave property to your beneficiaries.

What you do about your relationship and whether you choose to remain married is up to you. However, before you make that decision, you should make it with full knowledge of what you may be facing. Consult with professionals to learn more about and understand your own situation.