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What Is a Gray Divorce? Understanding this Growing Trend among Older Couples

elder couple arguing over divorce

A gray divorce, or “what is a gray divorce,” involves couples aged 50 and above who decide to end their marriages. Also known as late in life divorces, this growing trend has unique challenges and implications for those involved. In this article, we will explore the reasons behind gray divorces, the common challenges faced, and what couples can do to prepare for such a life-changing decision.

Key Takeaways

  • Gray divorce, involving adults aged 50 and older, has been increasing significantly, with divorce rates doubling since the 1990s due to longer lifespans, financial independence, and shifting cultural expectations towards personal happiness.

  • Key factors driving gray divorces include longer life expectancy, financial independence of older adults, especially women, and lifestyle changes like retirement and empty nest syndrome that prompt reassessment of marital satisfaction.

  • Late-in-life divorces among older couples present unique challenges including the division of high-value assets, health insurance considerations, retirement benefits, healthcare expenses, and support obligations, necessitating careful legal and financial preparation to ensure stability and fairness in the post-divorce period.


Divorce cuts across all generations, ages, and relationship histories. While it might seem surprising, gray divorce – that is, divorces among adults aged 50 and older – is a growing phenomenon that’s reshaping the landscape of late-life relationships. The term ‘gray divorce’ was coined in 2012 by Brown and Lin, who identified an increase in divorce rates among people aged 50 or older since 1990.

Shifts in societal norms and perceptions of marriage have led to an increasing number of older married couples deciding to separate. The surge in late-in-life divorces goes beyond mere statistics; it represents a societal transformation with far-reaching effects on individuals and families. While exploring the gray divorce phenomenon, we must grasp both the underlying reasons for this escalating trend and the distinctive challenges older couples confront when planning to terminate their marriages.

Defining Gray Divorce

Illustration of older couple going separate ways symbolizing gray divorce

‘Gray divorce’ refers to divorces involving adults aged 50 and over. This term, coined by Brown and Lin in 2012, has been used to categorize a significant shift in the demographics of divorce. No longer confined to younger couples, the specter of divorce now looms over long-term marriages, leading to what some have termed a ‘gray divorce revolution.’

The gray divorce rate has been rising since the 1990s, with many gray divorces occurring late in life after long marriages. This rise in gray divorce is notably significant among couples over 50, challenging our conventional wisdom about stability in long-term marriages and highlighting the unique challenges of late in life divorces. The gray divorce phenomenon is a clear indication that divorce is not just a concern for younger couples, but a reality for many older adults as well.

The Rise of Gray Divorces

elder couple arguing over divorce

As previously noted, the gray divorce rate has been steadily climbing for quite some time. Statistics show that the divorce rate for Americans over 55 has doubled since 1990, and for couples over 65, the divorce rate has tripled. These numbers represent a significant shift in the landscape of marriage and divorce, highlighting the growing trend of gray divorces.

This increasing trend reflects wider societal changes and the unique issues and concerns associated with late-in-life divorces. Older couples, often in marriages spanning decades, are choosing to part ways more than ever before. But what’s driving this trend? And why are older couples more likely to divorce now than they were in the past? To answer these queries, we must examine the statistics and the primary factors contributing to the surge in gray divorces.

Statistical Overview

A detailed analysis of the data reveals a significant increase in late in life divorces, particularly among couples over 50. In fact, gray divorce rates doubled between 1990 and 2010. The divorce rate for individuals aged 50 and older has more than doubled since 1990, from 5 per 1,000 married persons to about 10 per 1,000.

The rise is even more striking among those aged 65 and older. The divorce rate tripled from 1.8 per 1,000 in 1990 to 5.5 per 1,000 in 2021. Increased divorce rates for women aged 65 and older, rising nearly four-fold from 1.4 per 1,000 in 1990 to 5.6 per 1,000 in 2021, contribute to the trend.

By 2010, 27% of all divorces in the U.S. involved individuals aged 50 or older. By 2019, this figure had risen to an estimated 36%.

Key Factors Behind the Rise

Several key factors emerge when dissecting the reasons behind the surge in late in life divorces. Advances in science, medicine, and technology have led to longer lives, contributing to older couples opting for divorce. The American population is aging and people are staying healthy longer. This increased lifespan gives couples more time to reflect on their happiness and consider divorce as a viable option.

Another significant factor is the growth of financial independence, particularly among women. This financial empowerment allows older adults to leave unsatisfying marriages without the fear of financial insecurity. Moreover, shifting cultural expectations of marriage towards personal happiness and self-fulfillment have influenced the rise in late in life divorces. Add to this the reduced stigma around divorce, and it’s clear why the trend of late in life divorces is on the rise.

Common Reasons for Gray Divorce

Illustration depicting common reasons for gray divorce

Having gained a clearer understanding of the factors driving the rise in gray divorces, it’s time to probe deeper into the common reasons prompting older couples to call it quits. Financial disputes are often at the forefront of late in life divorces, with disagreements over money and assets leading to marital strife.

The desire for a happier life and individual growth are also significant factors leading older adults to divorce. As people live longer and healthier lives, they have more time to reflect on their happiness and consider whether their current marriage serves their needs. Older couples often grapple with issues like lack of shared interests and intimacy problems, prompting them to consider divorce.

Significant changes in lifestyle and routine brought about by retirement can also lead some couples to realize their spouse no longer ‘fits’ in this new life stage. Of course, infidelity remains a common reason for divorce at any age, including among older couples.

Longer Lifespans and Self-Reflection

Advancements in medical technology and healthcare have increased life expectancy significantly. This extended lifespan provides a longer timeframe for individuals to reconsider their marital satisfaction and contemplate significant life changes, such as late in life divorces, impacting their family life.

As people live longer, they often reevaluate their long-term happiness and may choose to leave unsatisfying marriages. This extended period of self-reflection can lead some individuals to choose divorce as a path to greater fulfillment and happiness.

Financial Independence

The rise of economic independence, particularly among women, is another significant factor influencing late in life divorces. Financial independence empowers individuals, giving them the freedom to:

  • leave marriages that do not satisfy their needs

  • pursue their own goals and interests

  • make decisions about their own lives without relying on a spouse for financial support

This increased independence, particularly among baby boomers, has contributed to the growing trend of late in life divorces.

This growing financial independence provides alternative pathways out of unsatisfying marriages, allowing individuals to make choices that prioritize their happiness and well-being. The financial empowerment that comes with an independent income can be a game-changer, providing the financial security needed to make the decision to divorce.

Empty Nest Syndrome

Another common reason for gray divorce is the ‘empty nest syndrome.’ This phenomenon refers to the feelings of loneliness parents may experience when their children leave home. For many couples, their children moving out can lead to the realization that they lack a common bond, leading to the realization that they have drifted apart.

This realization often prompts couples to consider divorce as they assess their happiness and future together. As such, empty nest syndrome can result in a reassessment of marital satisfaction and potentially trigger the decision to divorce. This is a significant factor in late-in-life divorces, where older adults face unique issues such as the division of retirement benefits, healthcare expenses, and support obligations.

Unique Challenges of Gray Divorce

Illustration representing unique challenges of gray divorce

Although divorce at any age brings its own set of challenges, late in life divorces present unique issues especially relevant to older couples. These include high asset values, impending retirement, and considerations around health insurance and alimony.

Gray divorces can be complex due to the high asset values involved. Couples have to divide assets accumulated over a lifetime, such as properties and retirement savings. Moreover, the proximity to or status in retirement means that older adults who divorce have less time to recover financially.

Division of Retirement Accounts

One of the most contentious issues in late in life divorces is the division of retirement accounts. Retirement savings can represent one of the largest components of a joint estate in a gray divorce, making their division crucial for financial security.

The division of retirement accounts can be complex, and state laws can significantly influence how retirement assets are divided, leading to potential disputes. Divorcing parties need to navigate these complexities carefully to avoid tax penalties and ensure a fair division of assets. An experienced family law attorney can be invaluable in this process.

Health Insurance Considerations

Health insurance coverage is a critical aspect to consider in late in life divorces, especially for individuals nearing retirement age but not yet eligible for Medicare. One spouse may lose access to insurance benefits previously provided by their partner, posing a significant concern.

Health insurance coverage can become more costly post-divorce, especially for older individuals who may have higher healthcare needs. It’s crucial to secure health insurance coverage during the transition period, as losing access to previous benefits can be challenging and costly.

Alimony and Spousal Support

Alimony and spousal support are common discussions in late in life divorces due to the long duration of many marriages. Spousal support decisions consider several factors, including the standard of living during the marriage, the duration of the marriage, and each spouse’s financial needs and ability to pay.

Having a comprehensive understanding of alimony laws and how they apply to your situation is crucial when going through a gray divorce. It’s important to remember that the goal of alimony is to ensure that both spouses can maintain a reasonable standard of living post-divorce.

Impact on Adult Children

Illustration depicting impact of gray divorce on adult children

Despite the primary focus being on the divorcing couple, the impact of late in life divorces on adult children often goes unnoticed in discussions. They are significant stakeholders in the family dynamic and can experience substantial disruption due to their parents’ divorce.

Even though adult children are considered independent, they are not immune to the effects of their parents’ divorce. The impact can range from emotional distress to financial strain, and the legal system does not consider adult children in divorce proceedings, as they are seen as uninvolved.

Emotional Impact

Late in life divorces can have a profound emotional impact on adult children. They can experience:

  • a sense of instability in the family structure during their parents’ divorce

  • feelings of grief and loss

  • a reassessment of their views on marriage and long-term relationships.

The role reversal is common, with adult children often providing emotional support and sometimes financial assistance to their parents, as a result of their experience in raising children. This can place significant emotional stress on adult children, who may feel a sense of loss over their family history and concern about the impact on future family dynamics.

Financial Implications

In addition to the emotional impact, there can also be significant financial implications for adult children when their parents go through late in life divorces. Younger adult children who are financially dependent on their parents might feel insecure about their future financial support.

There may also be concerns about changes in inheritance and how the divorce could impact adult children’s financial future. As such, it’s essential for parents going through a gray divorce to consider the financial implications for their adult children and to communicate openly about these issues.

Preparing for a Gray Divorce

As we have seen, maneuvering through late in life divorces presents its own unique challenges. However, proper preparation can help mitigate some of these challenges. Preparation for a gray divorce entails:

  • Compiling financial documents

  • Recalibrating lifestyle expectations

  • Putting together a comprehensive checklist

  • Revising estate planning documents

These steps are crucial in ensuring a smoother transition during and after the divorce. Being prepared also allows for more informed decisions that can lead to a fairer and more agreeable settlement for both parties.

Legal Preparation

Legal preparation is an essential step when considering late in life divorces. Hiring a lawyer with specific experience in gray divorces ensures that the unique challenges faced by older couples are adequately addressed.

A skilled divorce attorney can help in securing a favorable division of marital property and retirement benefits. This is especially important when it comes to the classification of retirement assets as marital or separate property. Therefore, it’s crucial to seek legal expertise to navigate the legal intricacies of a gray divorce.

Financial Planning

Financial planning is another critical aspect of preparing for late in life divorces. It’s crucial not to depend solely on alimony for financial support, as it may not be guaranteed in the long term. You may need to consider finding a job or extending your working years to ensure financial stability post-divorce.

Moreover, if the marriage lasted at least 10 years and you are unmarried, you can claim Social Security benefits from an ex-spouse’s work record. Updating your financial planning documents and beneficiary designations after a gray divorce is also important to ensure assets and healthcare wishes align with your current preferences.

Emotional Support

Emotional support is a crucial component of navigating late in life divorces. Emotional support through counseling or support groups can help manage the stress and emotional toll of a gray divorce. This can be particularly helpful in addressing the risk of loneliness and social isolation that can negatively impact health.

It’s important to remember that divorce later in life presents new possibilities and should not be seen as a personal failure. With the right support and resources, individuals can navigate a gray divorce and move forward to a fulfilling post-divorce life.


In conclusion, gray divorce is a growing trend in today’s society, with a significant increase in late in life divorces among individuals aged 50 and older. This rise in gray divorces is driven by various factors, including longer lifespans, financial independence, and shifting cultural expectations of marriage.

While gray divorce comes with its unique set of challenges, such as high asset values, impending retirement, and alimony discussions, proper preparation can mitigate these hurdles. It’s important to remember that each divorce is unique and that it’s crucial to seek legal, financial, and emotional support when navigating a gray divorce.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a gray divorce?

Gray divorce is the term used for divorces among adults aged 50 and older. It refers to the dissolution of marriages among this age group.

Why is the gray divorce rate rising?

The gray divorce rate is rising due to longer lifespans, increased financial independence, and changing cultural attitudes toward marriage. These factors contribute to the trend of divorces among older couples.

What are the unique challenges of gray divorce?

The unique challenges of gray divorce include high asset values, retirement considerations, division of retirement accounts, health insurance, and alimony discussions. These factors make gray divorces more complex and require careful planning.

How does gray divorce affect adult children?

Gray divorce can have a significant impact on adult children, leading to a sense of instability, grief, and potential financial challenges. It may also prompt a reevaluation of their perspectives on marriage and long-term relationships.

How should one prepare for a gray divorce?

To prepare for a gray divorce, gather financial documents, adjust lifestyle expectations, create a checklist, update estate planning documents, and seek legal, financial, and emotional support.

Charles M. Green is Certified as a California Family Law Specialist through the Board of Legal Specialization of the State Bar of California. He has worked extensively in both financial accounting fields and as a litigation attorney specializing in Family Law Cases. He is also diversely experienced in a number of other legal practice areas of importance to individuals, families, and businesses.

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