Divorce At 50 and How 'Gray Divorce' Affects America

elder couple in a conflict

As aging Americans remain healthy and live longer, many decide to end marriages in what were once called our Golden Years. But some experts caution that a so-called “gray divorce” leaves the newly single baby boomers more susceptible to financial problems and, particularly among men, a less satisfying social life.

Divorce rates among U.S. adults ages 65 and older have roughly tripled since the 1990s, according to the Pew Research Center. For ages 50 and older, the divorce rate has roughly doubled.

Separation and divorce are emotionally difficult changes in the life of the couple splitting up and, in older adults’ marriages, among children and grandchildren, as well. But at Charles R. Ullman & Associates, our law firm’s Raleigh, NC, elder divorce attorneys work to handle the legal aspects of separation and divorce with compassion as well as dedication to protecting our clients’ rights and interests.

What is Gray Divorce And Why Are Elderly Divorcing?

The concept of “gray” (or “grey”) divorce is a reference to hair color among older adults who are ending their marriages, sometimes with divorce after 30, 45 or even 50 years of marriage.

One of the earliest uses of the term “gray divorce” is thought to be a New York Times report from 2004, which said the percentage of Americans 65 and older who were divorced or separated rose to 10 percent in 2001 from 7 percent in 1999, “but anecdotal evidence suggests a growing trend.”

In 2010, researchers from the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio said in “The Gray Divorce Revolution: Rising Divorce Among Middle-Aged and Older Adults, 1990-2010,” that the divorce rate among adults aged 50 and older had doubled between 1990 and 2010. One in four persons who divorced in 2010 was 50 years old or older.

The Bowling Green researchers said further that the divorce rate among middle-aged and older adults had doubled over the previous two decades while most marriages in the U.S. were stable and some studies showed a slight decline in divorces overall.

The Times report said divorce lawyers, marriage counselors, gerontologists and people going through gray divorces cited many factors for the trend, including:

  • A rise in longevity among Americans
  • The values of the boomer generation and its tradition of self-expression and self-examination
  • The growth of economic independence among women.

In its 2017 report, Pew Research implies that a trend toward the prevalence of gray divorce may be inevitable among the baby boomer cohort. “During their young adulthood, baby boomers had unprecedented levels of divorce. Their marital instability earlier in life is contributing to the rising divorce rate among adults ages 50 and older today, since remarriages tend to be less stable than first marriages.”

In fact, 48% of all adults 50 and older who divorced in 2015 had been in their second or subsequent marriage, according to Pew.

Financial Repercussions of Gray Divorces

Pew says gray divorcees tend to be less financially secure than married and widowed adults, particularly among women.

USA Today cites a 2014 Government Accountability Office report to the Senate Special Committee on Aging that says a single person age 65 or older needs 79 percent of the income of a two-person household. After breaking up, divorced individuals may be financially vulnerable.

Scott Hansen, a certified financial advisor writing for Kiplinger, says divorces can be expensive and it is difficult to recover financially after age 50 because “you’re more likely to have maxed out your earning potential, your assets may be mostly fixed, and your employment opportunities tend to become more limited.”

Douglas Lyons, a certified financial planner and certified divorce financial analyst who spoke to MarketWatch, said, “The couple may be at that age where they just put kids through college and that has sucked up a lot of family assets, and now one of those spouses who hasn’t been the primary breadwinner has to go out and build a career and they are standing behind the 8 ball.”

Meanwhile, another Pew Research survey says older adults living alone are roughly twice as likely as those who live with others to say they don’t even have enough to meet basic expenses. This is in line with census data indicating that older Americans who live alone are about three times as likely as those who live with others to be poor, Pews says. In 2014, about one-in-five (18%) older adults living alone were in poverty, amounting to 2.2 million older adults. By contrast, 6% of older adults living with others in 2014 were in poverty.

Older divorced women, in particular, are 80 percent more likely than men to be in poverty at age 65 and older, a MarketWatch report says.

Psycho-Social Consequences of Gray Divorce

Pew also reports that “in general, older men who live alone are considerably more likely to experience social isolation than women who live alone.” Men who live alone are also considerably less likely than men who live with others (and women in any living arrangement) to say they are very satisfied with the number of friends they have.

Older adults living alone are somewhat less likely (90% compared to 80%) than older adults living with others to be in contact with their children and grandchildren, Pew says. But among older adults with grandchildren, 43% of those who live alone say they are in contact with their grandchildren on at least a weekly basis, compared with 60% of those living with others.

The Bowling Green researchers also touched on how gray divorce affects children and grandchildren of the estranged seniors, as well as society at large. Divorced older adults no longer have a spouse to rely on and are likely to place greater demands on their children for social support and as caregivers.

Older divorced adults who don’t have children or children living nearby may ultimately be forced to turn to institutional sources of support. And, as their health and well-being declines, their needs will only intensify.

“Furthermore, a decline in economic well-being following divorce would suggest a greater reliance on public rather than private forms of support, possibly meaning a rise in Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income usage by older adults,” the researchers say.