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“Gray Divorce” and How to Handle the Process Later in Life

By Sarah Jacobs, Esq.

Ending a marriage later in life can have its own particular challenges. After a long relationship, it may feel as though your identity is intertwined with that of your partner. You’ve shared life milestones with them, perhaps created a home together, raised a family, and forged many mutual friendships. 

The challenges are not just personal ones, though. They are also legal. That shared house is a shared asset. The retirement you celebrated could involve complex payouts that you both wish to claim. You may have estate planning documents that need to be reconfigured.

The legal issues that are part of later-in-life divorces (sometimes called “gray divorces”) can seem overwhelming, but the number of these divorces taking place are steadily on the rise. The median marriage length in the U.S. is 19.8 years, and though the national divorce rate is dropping, divorce rates for couples aged 55-64 reached 43% in 2016. 

When it comes to gray divorce, it’s important to work with trusted legal counsel who can help guide you through the proceedings and minimize any stress related to the settlement process. From joint retirement funds to estate planning, an experienced attorney can help you navigate your divorce and arrive at the best path toward your future happiness.

What is Gray Divorce?

The term “gray divorce” is used to refer to separations for spouses over the age of 50, who typically divorce following longer-term marriages. While marriages lasting more than 40 years are statistically the least likely to end in divorce, gray divorce is also significantly more likely if it is either person’s second or third marriage. 

Getting divorced later in life can have significant implications for the parties’ health and well-being. Recently divorced individuals tend to have higher blood pressure, as well as higher rates of depression. From a financial perspective, both men and women are less likely to experience financial security following a gray divorce.

Reasons Why Older Couples Are Choosing to Divorce

Every family is different, however, there are a few factors that may be involved in gray divorce:

  • Couples who are in their second, third, and fourth marriages are much more likely to divorce. 
  • Some couples will often postpone a divorce until their children reach adulthood or move out of the home.
  • Retirement and the following lifestyle changes can sometimes negatively impact a marriage, especially if a couple finds that their personal interests or financial habits in retirement do not align.
  • Many couples will delay divorce until both parties can be financially stable as individuals outside of the marriage.
  • Divorce no longer carries the stigma for many later-in-life divorcees that it did when both spouses were young, and parties may find it easier to decide to divorce later in life.
  • Financial missteps can harm a marriage. When a couple is in their prime working years, it can be easier to move past financial mistakes than when one or both individuals are approaching retirement. These issues can lead to increased dissatisfaction in the marriage.
  • No matter the couple’s age, infidelity can have a long-lasting impact on the health of a marriage. 

And finally, just because a couple is older doesn’t mean that they’re less capable of change—we all change throughout our lives, and sometimes married people simply drift apart as they grow into newer versions of themselves.

What to Consider During a Gray Divorce

No matter the reasons behind a gray divorce, couples must consider several factors. An experienced divorce attorney can help you navigate the various aspects of divorce to find the right solutions for your family.

Retirement and social security benefits

Divorce can impact your social security benefits if you and your spouse have been married for more than ten years. According to the National Council on Aging, older women, on average, receive about $4,500 less annually in social security benefits compared to older men, partly due to lower lifetime earnings or time spent raising children.

In general, if one spouse earns significantly less than the other, they may be entitled to claim social security benefits on their spouse’s earning history if they do not remarry without reducing the benefit payment for the other spouse.

Asset division

Couples divorcing later in life may have more assets than their younger counterparts—and parties with more assets may experience a more difficult or complex divorce process. They also may be more likely to have added stress or acrimony in their divorce. (But remember, just because stress or conflict is possible does not mean it’s inevitable. Working with a legal team that prioritizes creative problem solving can help you sidestep common points of conflict.)

Separating assets can be complicated because parties must determine which assets are subject to division and how that division should take place. When these discussions are approached in a collaborative spirit, the process can go smoothly, but if one or both spouses is stuck on the outcome being a certain way, or if there are larger legal hurdles (hidden assets, for one), it can create significant challenges.   

Estate planning decisions

Besides dividing up assets, parties must determine how to handle estate planning discussions. While married couples of any age can—and should—have a well-crafted estate plan, older couples are more likely to have one in place. Their estate plans may include provisions for tax benefits, which a divorce can complicate. 

An estate plan encompasses a range of legal considerations, such as:

  • How and to whom your assets are distributed 
  • Asset planning to protect government benefits
  • Control over who makes your financial and healthcare decisions if you are incapacitated 
  • Guardianship of minor children 

If you are undertaking a later-in-life divorce, you will want to carefully consider how you update your estate planning documents. While an experienced family law attorney can help you navigate these concerns, it may also be prudent to collaborate with an estate planning professional or tax planning professional to ensure your estate plan reflects your new circumstances. 

Adult children

Adult children of a divorce, while generally less likely to need direct financial support from either parent, should still be a consideration when it comes to the divorce process. Both parties should consider their children in estate planning and financial allocation, just as they would when drafting a will.

Adult children may react strongly to their parents’ divorce, which may result in estrangement. Studies have found that adult children are less likely to provide care and support to their fathers after their parents’ divorce. Men have a higher likelihood of remarriage, which can estrange adult children who were used to the status quo of their childhood. 

If you believe that divorce may affect your relationship with your children, or your children’s mental health, family counseling can be a valuable resource to process emotions and come to grips with complex life changes at any age. 

Don’t Go Through Your Divorce Alone—Jacobs Berger Can Help

No matter your age or circumstances, you do not have to go through a divorce alone. Our attorneys at Jacobs Berger, LLC, have extensive experience guiding families through divorce. We help families find the right solution for their unique circumstances and the best path forward.

At Jacobs Berger, our attorneys are experienced in protecting our clients across Madison, Randolph, Tewksbury, Morristown, and the greater Morris County area in all family law-related issues.
If you find yourself entering into a gray divorce, contact us today for a confidential case assessment, and prepare for a brighter tomorrow.

Contact Our Morristown Attorneys Today

At Jacobs Berger, our attorneys are experienced in protecting our clients across Madison, Randolph, Tewksbury, Morristown, and the greater Morris County area in all family law-related issues.

To schedule a strategic planning session with one of our experienced team members regarding your particular case, please contact us online or through our Morristown, NJ office at (973) 354-4506.