Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How is a “Gray Divorce” Different From Other Divorces?

Gray divorce is rising. There are big differences, emotionally and financially.

Key points

  • The divorce rate of people over 50 is increasing, even while the overall divorce rate is declining. 
  • Some decide to divorce when they're ready to trade the stability of marriage for the adventure and novelty of a new life.
  • Dividing financial, property, business, and retirement assets can be more complicated and you'll have less time to "make up" the losses.
  • Starting over may be especially hard for women, and adult children struggle with the breakup of their family or the loss of the family home.

Headlines of Bill and Melinda Gates’ divorce have prompted interest in “gray divorces.” While divorce numbers overall continue to decline, the divorce rate for people over 50 is increasing. According to Business Insider in 2015, gray divorce accounted for 10 out of 1,000 couples aged 50 and older. This is double what their divorce rate had been in 1990. And for those over 65, the increase was even higher—it had roughly tripled in 25 years.

Sean and Barbara (not their real names) came to consult with me after deciding to do a Collaborative Divorce. They were well-dressed and cooly civil in their communication with each other. Sean and Barbara had been married in their twenties, raised three children, and were a few years away from “our Medicare years,” as Barbara said. Barbara had been a stay-at-home mother, and Sean had a successful consulting career.

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels
There are many challenges in a gray divorce. Negotiating in good faith is essential.
Source: Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

What is a Gray Divorce?

Divorce after age 50 is called a gray divorce. The stigma of divorce has diminished over time and the reasons for gray divorce are often different from the reasons stated by younger divorcing people.

For starters, divorce often happens when couples have different ideas about how to spend their later years, retiring, or perhaps starting a new career. Barbara and Sean were divorcing after 30 years of marriage. When you divorce after many years of marriage, and often after your children are grown, it may be because you are entering a new phase of life. Now that people are living longer, we have more options and opportunities for the next decades of life.

With the children launched, Sean and Barbara had begun to talk about the future. Barbara wanted to downsize and travel. “I have always imagined we’d spend half a year in London or Paris,” she said. Sean, however, preferred the comforts of home and didn’t even see retirement on the horizon. “I don’t know what I would do with myself if I didn’t work,” he told me. “I’d be bored and depressed.” They were at an impasse and realized that their interests and goals were irreconcilable.

You may have known for a long time that you and your partner were drifting apart. You’re ready for a different life, to pursue your own interests, or to shed the responsibility or boredom of a long less-than-happy marriage.

Barbara and Sean described a marriage that had been focused on the children. “The spark was gone years ago,” Sean said. When the children are launched, you may be asking yourself if you want to live the next decades with the person you married. You may decide to divorce when you’re ready to trade the stability of your marriage for the adventure and novelty of a new life. Sometimes there is a new romance already in the wings.

Another factor in gray divorces is that both you and your spouse may have been working and are now financially independent. However, if this is not the case—for example, if you have been a stay-at-home parent—the divorce can be financially devastating, especially for women. Sean had put away money for the future but now that they were divorcing, he was anxious they’d run out of money unless Barbara found work. He believed he’d never be able to retire if he would have to divide all their assets.

Photo by Tom Leishman from Pexels
Collection all of the necessary financial documents after many years together is a complicated issue.
Source: Photo by Tom Leishman from Pexels

How is Gray Divorce Different from Divorcing Earlier in Life?

Divorce later in life is different financially and emotionally from divorces earlier in life. For starters, many financial factors are at play in a gray divorce, especially if you’ve been married 20 years or more.

In a long marriage, for example, you and your spouse may have accumulated a lot of assets, or you may own a business, and these assets need to be valued. Dividing these assets can be very complicated. Unlike younger divorces, older people are more likely to have pension plans (and other retirement benefits), bonuses from employers, restricted stock units, stock options, partial ownership of other entities or assets, executive compensation, and/or other assets such as airline miles or hotel points. All of these will complicate the discussions about the amount and duration of spousal support (alimony).

Sean’s consulting business would have to be valued, Barbara told him. After all, her taking care of the home and children enabled him to be successful. Sean told her that his business had no value if he quit working. I suggested that they table this conversation until they met with their collaborative lawyers.

If you are distinguishing between separate and community property in the division of assets, it may be impossible to obtain records and documentation from decades earlier.

Barbara recalled that she had used her inheritance from an aunt as part of the downpayment on their first home. She thought she should get that money back now, “with interest,” although they had no records of the transaction and had moved several times since then. Again, I advised them that these are legal questions. I could assist with their communication but we would not be resolving financial questions.

You will have less time to catch up on the financial losses when everything is divided. This causes anxiety about being able to retire, or about receiving support when the payor retires. The payor spouse may be worried about their ability to keep up support payments as they slow down or retire.

As their divorce progressed, Sean worried more about whether he could continue to work at the same pace he had when he was younger. “I’m almost 60,” he said, “and I might want to start dating, right?” “Fine,” she told Sean, “as long as you don’t take the kids out of your will if you remarry.” After divorce, you should create a new estate plan. However, there can be confusion over beneficiaries, especially if you or your ex remarries, has more children, or acquires step-children.

After the divorce, you each need to have health insurance, and if it was paid by your spouse’s employer, spousal benefits will usually end. In gray divorces, it’s important to think about health care in the future, as well as Medicare, long-term disability insurance, life insurance, and social security. Barbara and Sean’s lawyers referred them to a Certified Financial Divorce Analyst. A CDFA can work with you to sort this all out and offer resources, with your attorney or mediator, or with the two of you together.

If you’ve been previously divorced, you (or your ex) may potentially have more than one support obligation, paying spousal support and/or child support to another ex.

If you’ve been a financially dependent spouse, such as a stay-at-home parent, you may feel you need more support given the reduced likelihood of starting a career late in life. Barbara looked forward to her independence but didn’t want to get a job. “I have no skills, and you promised you’d always take care of me,” she said. You might worry about whether you will be supported when your ex retires or dies. For this reason, the payor is often required to obtain life insurance with the payee ex as the beneficiary.

Emotional Factors in Gray Divorces

Divorce is almost always a life crisis, and when older people, especially women, divorce they may feel it is too late to “start over.” There is an increased risk of anxiety and depression, especially if you’re the person who didn’t want the divorce.

Barbara complained that Sean would probably find a new partner easily, but “No one wants a washed-up old lady…” Barbara’s anxiety about this increased until she realized that several of her friends had remarried in mid-life.

Self-care during and after the divorce is important. Finding support through friends or a therapist can help you get through the crisis.

There is a risk that you might fall back on negative and unhealthy coping behaviors such as drinking, drugs, etc. If you are distraught, turn to others for support. Barbara joined a divorce support group and met several other women who were in a gray divorce. They continued to meet for months after the divorce, and some became new close friends.

If you want to participate in your children's and grandchildren's lives, after divorce. An amicable divorce can make it happen.
Source: Pixabay/Pexels

Custody is not usually an issue as the children are longer minors. However, you and your ex will still be the parents of your adult children. You should pay attention to how the divorce is affecting your children and you’ll need to work out issues around sharing life events with them, such as weddings and grandchildren. Barbara and Sean decided to talk to their three children together when they were home for the holidays. They wanted to be able to support their kids by demonstrating that they could still “be a family.”

Adult children can be emotionally devastated by the breakup of their family or the loss of the family home. If you and your ex can convey to your children that “We are still a family, under two roofs” this may ease the trauma. Adult children often experience their parents’ divorce as a huge loss, and they may grieve for a long time.

Some adult children may not be surprised by your divorce or wonder “What took you so long?” The divorce may disrupt their lives as they try to support the parent they see as more vulnerable. It is important to remember that your children have their own lives and the support you need would be more appropriate coming from your friends or professionals.

Just because your kids are grown doesn’t mean they should know the details of your divorce or the issues that led to the divorce. They should not be put into the position of confidante, messenger, spy, or ally.

  • They need your support and permission to love you and the other parent.
  • They don’t need to figure out whom to blame.
  • They shouldn’t have to worry about whether you or your ex will be okay financially or emotionally.
  • And they shouldn’t feel guilty if you chose to stay together because of the kids.

It has been four years since Sean and Barbara finalized their divorce. Recently they sent me a photo of them with their children in front of a beautiful Christmas tree. In their email, they wrote that the first two years after the divorce were hard, but they had adjusted, and all were doing well. Sean had remarried a year ago, and Barbara had a cordial relationship with the new wife. Barbara had been traveling in Europe with a friend. Their oldest son was planning a June wedding, and their middle daughter would soon be graduating from college. They looked forward to celebrating these milestone events together.

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2021


More from Ann Gold Buscho Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today