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.

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.

What is a Gray Divorce?

image encouraging negotiation

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.