In the last 30 years, the divorce rate in America has dropped in half, falling from 4.7 in 1990 to 2.3 in 2020. That’s the good news. The bad news? Over that exact same time, the divorce rate for those 50 and older has doubled, rising from 4.9 to 10.3.
“Gray divorce”—as it’s known—has become more and more common among aging Baby Boomers. Let’s look at a few of the reasons for this unusual phenomenon, then focus on some of the unique challenges that gray divorce presents.
More Life, Less in Common:
100 years ago, Americans had a life expectancy just over 50. Today, men and women who live to 50 now have a life expectancy of another 30 years. Many will live to their 90s. In short this means that people have a whole other life to live after 50. And they don’t want an unhappy marriage to hold them back.
Likewise, couples in their 50s and 60s have usually raised a family, had careers, and evolved as individuals. The goals they set as young newlyweds have probably been reached. As children leave the nest and retirement looms, many couples realize how much they’ve simply grown up and grown apart.
More Freedom, Less Judgment:
Living long enough to grow apart is only part of the perfect storm. Since the 1950’s and 60’s—when most of these present-day married adults were born and raised—the world has changed mightily. Women have careers that were unheard of a half-century ago. Consequently, women don’t have to be “just” wives and mothers.
At the same time, American society no longer looks down on divorced women and men. If anything, people are more surprised by marriages that last than those that don’t. Plenty of Baby Boomers have already been divorced by 50—with many on 2nd and 3rd marriages—so the stigma that once held unhappy couples back is gone.
Whether emotional or economic, the challenges that gray divorcees face are similar to those that all separating couples must tackle. But due to age and where they are in life, some are more acute.
Challenge #1: Identity
The question of identity arises for anyone who separates from their partner, but for those older than 50—who may have been married for much of their adult life—it is an even greater challenge. For decades they have been half of every party invitation and holiday card, and now they are not. So who are they?
Suggestion: Spend time evaluating who you are as an individual and what you want to do with your life. Set goals. Make lists. If you’re struggling with identity, seek out a professional to talk with and regain stability.
Challenge #2: Family
Most people assume that divorce is easier on families once children are grown and out of the nest. But that is not always the case. Many grown children grapple with the same issues of identity, wondering if their parents don’t love each other now, did they ever? When did that start? And were their childhood memories even real?
Suggestion: Sit down with your adult children and talk. Look them in the eye. They may live far away now, but it’s important to give this the same seriousness as if they were adolescents under your roof.
Challenge #3: Inventory
After years together—often raising a family and succeeding in careers—most gray divorcees have accumulated quite a bit more than the typical divorcing couple. From homes and cars to electronics and jewelry, it’s important to know what you have, as well as each item’s worth. It’s important for an equitable split, and it’s important for planning ahead.
Suggestion: Create a comprehensive list of all assets (and debts) with their value. In California—a community property state—any asset (or debt) that comes in during the marriage is owned 50-50 by both spouses.
Challenge #4: Retirement
The following items could easily fold into “Inventory” above, but they’re so critical to couples over 50 that they deserve their own heading. Many gray divorcees are either already retired or quickly nearing it. That means that pensions, IRAs, 401ks, health insurance and Social Security are that much more relevant and important.
Suggestion: Calculate the value of individual retirement savings and benefits, and talk with an accountant or financial professional to fully understand how best to split accounts without penalties (per your ages and any restrictions).
Challenge #5: Planning
Along with identity, living alone can be an economic shock to those divorcing after 50. Most long-married couples have benefited from one mortgage and two incomes, while sharing bills and expenses. But now they’re on their own. At the same time, most gray divorcees are past their peak earning potential.
Suggestion: Build a practical budget. Factor in new expenses, as well as a realistic expectation of income—whether from retirement, savings, alimony or new earned income. Depending on your age and finances, this can be the most critical challenge.
It’s never an easy time to separate, but for couples over 50 who’ve been together decades, gray divorce exposes them to a whole new world. The last time they were single may have been the 1990s. Or 1980s. Or 1970s. Life will be brand new, and proper emotional and economic planning is essential.
To navigate the unique challenges of a gray divorce, please contact us at South Bay Mediation. Our experienced team is here to help you negotiate a peaceful conclusion to that important first chapter, then help you prepare for the next fulfilling chapter in your life.
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