What is Gray Divorce?

Divorce is a stressful time for anyone. The facts and statistics around divorce have changed substantially in the last few decades, and the truth is that divorce is not something that only affects younger couples. 

In the United States, divorce rates for people 50 or older have increased steadily since the 1990s. There has been a surge in late-life divorces, now called “gray divorce.” What can couples facing gray divorce anticipate? What rights do you have concerning gray divorce in Washington State? What are the major reasons that older couples are divorcing? 

What is gray divorce? Let’s review what gray divorce is, explore its critical factors, and look at both emotional and legal considerations concerning this phenomenon.

What Are The Main Reasons for Gray Divorce?

The factors that influence gray divorce are complicated, but in many cases, they are the same reasons why younger couples divorce. Addiction, abuse, and infidelity are common gray divorce reasons, but others are unique to couples who have been together for decades. When couples seek a gray divorce, their reasoning can be impacted by family, personal desires, or changing social norms. 

Signs of gray divorce can be different depending on the couple, and here are a few causes:

Empty Nest Syndrome

Caring for children is a foundational aspect of most families, and the effort required demands extraordinary dedication and care. When the home is suddenly empty, some couples realize how much they’ve drifted apart and how much of their lives orbited around their beloved children. 

Once their kids have grown, these couples may face a tumultuous time adapting to life alone. Some marriages cannot recover from this, and the struggle leads to increased frustration, irreconcilable differences, listlessness, and altered priorities. These feelings are normal and natural, but can result in late-life divorce.

Financial Disputes

Financial disagreements are one of the main reasons for divorce regardless of age, especially in the United States. In the case of older couples, finances can look entirely different as many gray divorces result in disputes over acquired wealth instead of a lack of finances. Investments, budgeting, retirement funds, travel, or property purchases might cause these arguments. While the specific reasoning can differ, any argument over money can strain a relationship and ultimately lead to a gray divorce.

Desire for a Happier Life

Marriage qualities and social norms have changed substantially in the last few decades, and older couples have become disinterested in the morays that once governed the reasons for why they should remain together. Unhappy marriages can be particularly difficult to navigate, especially if both parties feel disconsolate. We live in a time where individuals can seek rich lives and fulfillment post-divorce through avenues such as arts, hobbies, leisure, work, and family. Divorce is not the end, and it’s possible to find new happiness even later in life.

Individual Growth

Personal growth and individual interests can be difficult to pursue in some marriage dynamics, and older generations might feel that their devotion to their partner precedes their desires. People change dramatically as they age, regardless of their stage of life. Individuals find new passions, their romantic interests change, their priorities shift, and they seek out new and exciting experiences. When changes of mind don’t align with a partner’s, it can be difficult to maintain the marriage spark. In some cases, gray divorce is as simple as falling out of love and desiring something new or different.

Intimacy Issues

Regardless of age, all human beings require certain levels of intimacy. Lack of intimacy in a marriage can lead to divorce, even later in life. Whether it’s emotional or physical, couples need intimacy to remain in love. Gray divorce can be the result of a mutual failing of intimacy, individual despondency, infidelity, or any number of interpersonal factors. 

Gray Divorce Factors to Consider

Divorce can be a painful time, even if it’s amicable. Regardless of age, divorce affects individuals and family dynamics, and ending a marriage later in life can be a particular challenge for all involved. There are many reasons why older couples choose to divorce, and many regrets after the fact. 

Here are some important facts to consider before a gray divorce:

Financial Impact

Regardless of age, divorce can significantly impact your financial situation. If you have shared assets (such as a house or retirement savings) the financial impact can be even more worrisome. Before finalizing a divorce, it’s essential to consider the financial implications, including division of assets, living alone, and spousal support.

There are a few steps you can take to minimize the negative financial consequences of a gray divorce:

  • Speak with an attorney: A lawyer can offer advice as to which way your finances might be most impacted, especially concerning things like assets, property, QDROs, and more.
  • Consult with a financial adviser: A financial adviser can show you the long-term financial impact that divorce creates, and give you advice on how to mitigate this impact and develop a realistic budget.
  • Consider collaborative divorce: An amicable divorce can be very cost-effective and is less financially impactful than traditional litigation. You will work with a neutral third party to reach an agreement that’s mutually beneficial rather than relying on the court.
  • Prioritize personal assets: Protect your investments and financial future by prioritizing your assets. Consider those with long-term financial value, such as retirement accounts and property. Emotional Impact

Gray divorce is a significant emotional adjustment for all parties involved. A common regret is loss of companionship, even if the divorced parties felt like their marriage wasn’t what it used to be. There can also be the emotional impact on family, and adult children’s response to late-life separation.

It can be difficult to adjust to life as a single person after decades of marriage. Feelings of loneliness arise, and many couples have shared meaningful experiences together and built deep connections with one another that they might be surprised they miss. Without emotional support, this can be a very challenging time.

It’s important to consider community after a gray divorce. Seek out clubs, churches, or organizations to take part in and keep yourself in a healthy, collaborative state of mind. Seek support from friends, family, and professional therapy. Don’t go it alone. Also, older individuals shouldn’t put off dating—it’s always possible to start new, and experiences shouldn’t be limited regardless of age.

Health Concerns

As we age, health concerns become more prevalent. You or your spouse might have health issues, which can be impacted by a shift in finances and physical or emotional support. Divorce might significantly impact the ability to provide or receive care, which is a concern for many considering gray divorce.

There is also the consideration of regret, and how divorce might impact health later in life. Having a spouse to provide care and support is significant, but it’s also possible for health to dwindle without someone by your side.

Individuals struggle with health issues alone regardless of age. Without a support system, it’s easy for important things to fall by the wayside. Talk with a family law or estate planning attorney to find out the possible impacts before separation; an attorney will help you understand the issues at hand before the divorce is finalized.

Legal Matters

Divorce is a complex legal process, even when it’s amicable. Separating assets, property, and debt is challenging, and it’s paramount that you consult with a lawyer to understand all your legal obligations. Speaking with an experienced family law attorney can help you understand your rights—you may have access to alimony or separation support depending on your situation, especially if you stayed home and took care of the children for decades while your spouse worked and accumulated a retirement fund. Depending on your individual or shared income, you may face significant benefits or losses.

Retirement Plans

Retirement plans can be significantly impacted by divorce. Social security, pension plans, and QDROs will all be split by you and your spouse, and you must consider the potential aspects of divorce on any retirement plans you have. Before considering divorce, you should work with an estate planning attorney so that they can walk you through your options and help you understand what percentage of your retirement plan goes to you and your spouse. 

How Are Gray Divorce Issues Different?

Gray divorce is not a simple separation—many issues and considerations arise because of the impact of age and time. These issues are significantly more complex, and the challenges that arise are ones that younger couples do not have to consider. Couples that have been married for decades have built a life together—this makes dividing property, possessions, and finances difficult. It also has an impact on the family, which alone can give many late-life couples pause before separation.

Gray divorce’s unique issues can include:

  • Division of longtime shared assets
  • Retirement accounts, pension plans, and shared bank accounts
  • Loss of health insurance
  • Retirement alimony payments
  • Emotional affect on adult children
  • Shifting long-standing family dynamics
  • Altered relationships with extended family.
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Hiring A Divorce Lawyer 

Gray divorce comes with its fair share of complications and difficulties. It’s important to remember that it’s not impossible to start over, no matter what stage in life. Personal happiness and security are paramount to everyone, and if you are strongly considering a late-life divorce, you need expert legal advice from a trustworthy divorce lawyer with years of experience.

Skyview Law’s family law and estate planning attorneys have decades of experience in divorce and gray divorce. We offer you the empathetic support and expertise you need to make the right decisions. Call today for a Free Case Review and we will help you understand your legal rights and obligations during an ongoing gray divorce.

Picture of JARROD HAYS


Jarrod Hays is the founder of Skyview Law. He is licensed to practice law in Washington State and the Western District of Washington State Federal Court.

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