While the overall divorce rate has dropped in recent years, the Pew Research Center found the divorce rate among adults age 50 and older in the United States has doubled since 1995. Reflecting societal changes and shifts in personal priorities that challenge the conventional notion of “till death do us part,” this phenomenon, coined the “gray divorce,” poses unique opportunities and obstacles for individuals seeking a fresh start in their older years.
Various factors contribute to this trend, including evolving attitudes toward divorce, longer life expectancies and shifting gender roles. As divorce has become more socially acceptable, and with people now leading active lives well into their older years, many individuals are reevaluating their relationships and reconsidering whether their partners align with their long-term goals, particularly if the other spouse has had an affair, is emotionally or physically abusive, or struggles with addiction.
Further, with more women than ever before attaining financial independence through participation in the workforce, and with individuals increasingly prioritizing personal fulfillment and happiness, many older individuals are electing not to stay in unhappy marriages “for the sake of the children,” particularly if their children have emancipated. Older couples also sometimes find that as they become empty nesters and retire, they have less in common than they once did. Additionally, as more and more individuals are living alone or in a retirement facility as they age, there is a reduced societal expectation that one spouse will serve as the other’s caregiver indefinitely.
Some notable examples of gray divorcées include Clint Eastwood (age 84 at the time of the divorce) and Dina Ruiz, Rupert Murdoch (age 82 at the time of the divorce) and Wendi Deng, Bill and Melinda Gates, Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott, and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver.
Gray divorce couples face some unique challenges as they look to end their marriage. While custody battles are less common because children of gray divorce couples are often older or emancipated, unique financial considerations often rise to the forefront in gray divorce cases. Many older couples have accumulated assets that require special attention when dividing the couple’s property, particularly if the couple desires to preserve some of their wealth for their children or for future generations.
Similarly, while all divorcing couples should update their estate planning following, or in connection with, a divorce, this is an especially important task for gray divorcées. Health insurance can pose a significant concern, especially if one spouse relies on the other’s insurance and is not yet eligible for Medicare. Dividing retirement benefits can also be complicated, particularly if a defined benefit or pension plan is already in payout status. Social security benefits, tied to marriage length and status, are also an important consideration for older couples looking to separate.
Despite the potential challenges, a gray divorce can mark both an end and a fresh start. As the landscape of relationships continues to evolve, gray divorce can serve as a path toward renewed happiness and personal growth. For those contemplating divorce in their later years, I encourage you to consult with a knowledgeable family law attorney to explore potential issues and to enable you to make an informed decision.
This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.