Understanding Gray Divorces
Divorce traditionally has been understood primarily as a phenomenon among the young and middle-aged. After all, most married couples figure out within a few years whether their marriage will work long-term. Estimates place the average length of marriage before divorce at about eight years. But as the U.S. population ages, divorces late in life — known as “gray divorces” — are becoming more common than they once were. Ending a long-term marriage comes with unique challenges that can be more complex than for younger couples, which often will require sophisticated legal counsel from an experienced attorney.
Gray Divorce Is on the Rise
Adults over the age of 65 continue to constitute an ever-larger share of the population, causing an uptick in the number of gray divorces. According to a study from the Journal of Gerontology, individuals aged 50 and older now account for one-quarter of all divorces, with the divorce rate among this age cohort rising at a staggering speed. Another study by Bowling Green State University found that the average age for divorce in 1970 was 30.5 for men and 27.7 for women. By 2020, it has risen to 41.7 for men and 40.5 for women. While the average age at marriage showed a corresponding increase over the same period, the average age at divorce more sharply.
The Main Causes of Gray Divorce
Just as no two couples are the same, no two divorces are the same. Marriages end in divorce for myriad reasons — perhaps there was an affair, the couple ran into financial difficulties, having children proved too taxing, or the couple simply fell out of love. Whatever the reason, it is impossible to pin down an “average” cause of divorce. However, there are some uniting themes.
Some of the most common causes of gray divorce include:
- Growing apart: People tend to change over time as they mature and their interests and habits evolve. While this can occur to couples of any age, it is more common among older couples. The longer a couple is together, the more each spouse ages, increasing the risk that they will grow apart over the course of the years.
- The last child left home: Children are often the glue that holds rocky marriages together. Whether motivated by a sense of duty toward the child or a fear of causing severe emotional harm to them, many couples remain married until their children leave home. Once the children are out of the picture, however, some couples realize that the benefits of marriage are no longer worth the effort.
- Aging: Many couples bond around shared hobbies — cycling, camping, hiking, skiing, etc. But people’s bodies turn on them when they age, which often prevents them from engaging in activities they once enjoyed and increases the risk of boredom in a marriage. In other cases, one spouse may suffer the ravages of age faster or more acutely than the other, leading them to seek out a younger companion.
- Lifestyle choices: Individuals age differently. One spouse might desire an active retirement full of travel and excitement, while the other may prefer peace and quiet. Clashing lifestyle choices such as these can often spell the end of a marriage.
- Financial pressure: Money and spending habits are issues for all couples. However, they can be more acute for the elderly. With many no longer working and living on a fixed income, disagreements over spending can be more destructive.
If you sense that any of these issues or others are putting strain on your marriage, you may want to consider speaking to an attorney.
Special Issues in Gray Divorce
Divorce is rarely simple, even for young couples with fairly limited assets, but there are a few key issues in gray divorce that can add even more complexity.
Alimony (or spousal support) is typically awarded by one spouse to the other to allow the other spouse to get back on their feet after a divorce. It is common in divorces in which the couple was married for a considerable period of time and one spouse left the labor force to focus on domestic matters and childcare. Given that older couples are likely to fit these characteristics, alimony is a significant consideration in gray divorces and often will be awarded in higher amounts and for longer periods of time than in typical divorces.
California is a community property state, meaning that, absent a prenuptial agreement, all marital property is divided 50/50 upon divorce. But this is more complicated than it sounds. Some assets are harder to value and divide than others, such as real estate, retirement accounts, fine art and jewelry, and businesses. The longer a couple has been married, the more assets they are likely to own, and thus the more complex the property division process is likely to be.
At least one spouse in a gray divorce is likely to have a pension, 401k, IRA, or other retirement account. These assets (or portions thereof) are considered marital property and are subject to division upon divorce under California’s community property law. While the division of retirement benefits varies according to a number of factors, one thing is certain — a gray divorce likely will put a significant financial dent in at least one of the spouse’s retirement plans.
Both spouses generally will be eligible for their own Social Security benefits, provided that they each have a work history. However, divorced individuals who were married to their spouse for at least 10 years and who are unmarried at the time they become eligible for Social Security are eligible for a portion of their ex-spouse’s benefits under certain circumstances. Since most older individuals who have gone through divorces are likely to meet these characteristics, Social Security can become an issue in gray divorce.
Contact an Attorney if You Are Considering a Gray Divorce
Gray divorces can be significantly more complex than divorces earlier in life. If you are considering a gray divorce, it would be in your best interest to discuss its possible implications with an experienced attorney. To get started, please contact an attorney at McKinley, Conger, Jolley & Galarneau by using our online form or calling us at 209-477-8171.