What is a Gray Divorce, and How is it Different?

gray divorce

Divorce is a difficult and emotional process for everyone involved. While the country’s overall divorce rate appears to be near its lowest point in about half a century, the rate for older adults has increased in the past couple of decades. This trend has led to the term “gray divorce,” which refers to people who decide to get a divorce later in life. Read on to learn more about what might be driving the gray divorce trend and how gray divorce can be different from other Missouri divorce cases.

What Is Gray Divorce?

“Gray divorce” is not a legal term used in divorces in Missouri. It refers to divorce cases among people who are at least fifty years old. A report released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2021 found that people ages 55 to 64 were much more likely to be divorced than younger people. This figure does not tell us much by itself, except that people age 55 and up have had more time to get married and divorced. It is not, however, the only statistic pointing towards an increase in gray divorce.

In 2017, the Pew Research Group published a report on divorce rates among different age groups between 1990 and 2015. It found that the divorce rate dropped for younger people and rose for older people:

  • For people ages 25 to 39, the divorce rate dropped from 30 to 24 divorces per 1,000 married people, a decrease of 24%.
  • The divorce rate for people ages 40 to 49 increased by 14%, from 18 to 21 per 1,000.
  • The divorce rate doubled for people 50 and older, although the actual rate remains lower than in other age groups. It went from 5 divorces per 1,000 in 1990 to 10 in 2015.

Why Are People Getting Divorced Later in Life?

No single cause is behind the increase in the divorce rate among older people, but it might be possible to identify some societal changes that could be factors in many gray divorces. A psychologist writing for CNN noted last year that, in his couples therapy practice, he used to see many couples who stayed in their marriages despite being unhappy “out of convenience or routine, or even a sense of familiarity.” He says that the rate of divorce among his older patients now matches the overall trend in society. He lists multiple possible factors, including:

  • Improved communication between couples, leading some to realize when things are not working;
  • Fewer taboos surrounding divorce; and
  • Longer lifespans, meaning that people might see a future after marriage in their 50s, 60s, or later.

People over the age of 50 are also less likely to have children still living at home. Some couples might stay together while raising children. Once the children are grown up and on their own, separation and divorce could be more likely. Divorce can be very difficult for children, including after the children are adults.

How Is Gray Divorce Different from Divorce at a Younger Age?

The legal issues in a gray divorce might not be that different from those in a divorce involving younger people, but there might be several important differences in the circumstances. Any type of divorce will involve the division of marital property. Gray divorces are less likely to involve issues like child custody and child support, if only because the children are more likely to be adults. Spousal maintenance can be an issue in any divorce, although a divorce between older people can present more of the relevant factors for maintenance established by Missouri law.

Property Division

Gray divorce refers to divorce cases involving people who are at least 50 years old, regardless of how long they have been married. That said, the data cited above from the Census Bureau and other sources suggest that a substantial number of people seeking a divorce later in life have been married for some time.

The longer a couple has been married, the more marital property they have probably acquired. Missouri defines “marital property” as most property obtained by either spouse during the marriage. Exceptions include property received as a gift or through inheritance. A couple in their 50s or older that has been married for a long time may have a fairly complicated marital estate, which might include:

  • A residence;
  • One or more automobiles;
  • Bank accounts, including checking and savings;
  • Retirement accounts, such as Social Security, pensions, IRAs, or 401k accounts; and
  • Other investments, such as brokerage accounts or stock portfolios.

Dividing retirement accounts in a divorce can be complicated before either spouse has retired. If one or both spouses are already receiving retirement benefits, the process can be even trickier. Divorce also affects benefits received from Social Security and Medicare, which may be an issue for people who are 65 or older.

Spousal Maintenance

The main purpose of spousal maintenance is to provide support for a spouse who was financially dependent to some degree on the other spouse. Factors that a court may consider when determining whether to award maintenance, and in what amount, include:

  • Each spouse’s earning capacity;
  • The length of the marriage;
  • Each spouse’s age and health;
  • Each spouse’s ability to support themselves financially; and
  • The amount of time that the spouse asking for maintenance would need to find employment to support themselves.

Suppose a couple seeking a gray divorce has been married for more than forty years. For most of that time, one spouse worked and the other raised the children. The spouses have vastly different earning capacities, but both are now nearing retirement age. Maintaining the standard of living to which both spouses are accustomed will require careful planning, negotiation, and advocacy.

Mark A. Wortman is a Kansas City family lawyer. He has dedicated 100% of his practice to helping people who are dealing with difficult family law issues like divorce at any stage of life. To schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case, please contact us today online or at (816) 523-6100.

Categories: Divorce