Editor’s note: This article is an introduction to an ongoing series throughout the year focused on helping older adults navigate the financial difficulties of gray divorce.
We begin the new year full of resolutions: to lose weight, stop smoking, maybe learn a new language. Sadly, the new year also brings an increase in divorce filings. In fact, many divorce attorneys have come to refer to January as Divorce Month.
Rebecca Miller, a family law attorney in Nevada, notes that divorce is an unfortunate resolution she sees every year. “In my 37 years of family law practice,” she says, “I’ve seen that most people like to avoid what they assume will be a negative experience during the holidays and want to start the new year beginning a new chapter in their lives.”
As a financial adviser specializing in divorce, I’ve seen the same thing in my practice. December is slow, but the wave of phone calls and emails begins to build in January.
A University of Washington report from 2016 confirms the anecdotal evidence. Most divorce filings in Washington happen in March. The time lag over the first few months of the year might be due to people taking the time to educate themselves about divorce, consult with divorce specialists and prepare the necessary legal filings.
If trends continue, over one in three divorce filings in 2024 will occur to people over the age of 50. It’s a phenomenon known as “gray divorce.”
What’s behind gray divorce?
There are at least six key reasons:
- An increased acceptance of divorce in our society. Older adults will continue to be more accepting of divorce in the future as either they or people around them experience divorce.
- A growing share of older adults are in second or third marriages, which are likelier to end in divorce than first marriages. While about 45% of first marriages fail, that number rises to the mid-60% level for second marriages and even higher for third marriages.
- The increase in gray divorce is due to the increased participation of women in the workforce. Divorce is a more feasible option when women have the economic freedom to support themselves outside of marriage.
- Increased life expectancy decreases the likelihood that marriages will end because of death and increases the exposure to the risk of divorce. If you’re in a marriage where your goals and dreams show little sign of developing or potentially flourishing, you might be encouraged to get out while you’ve still got time. If you’re 60 years old, in excellent health and have a reasonable expectation of living to at least 80, you’ve got at least a quarter of your life left and might want to make the most of it.
- The nest is empty. For couples who've avoided getting divorced for the sake of the children, that reason diminishes when the kids go away to college.
- A rise in the industry of personal development. Books, articles, educational programs all encourage people to live up to their potential, to follow their dreams and to reject those people, such as a spouse, who may be stunting their personal growth.
Increasingly, gray divorcees are over the age of 65, the only age group with an increasing divorce rate in the United States. Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin, writing in The Journals of Gerontology in 2022 about this older group of gray divorcees, suggest that it’s entirely possible that gray divorce will increasingly be the province of older rather than middle-aged adults. This raises concerns about how they will deal with the economic and social stress of late-life divorce.
Brown and Lin note that the distinctive marriage patterns of Baby Boomers are marked by high levels of divorce and remarriage, which have continued as they get older.
Baby Boomers composed the middle age group, age 50 to 64, in their 2010 study that really put a spotlight on the gray divorce revolution. By 2019, much of the Baby Boomer generation had aged into older adulthood, age 65 and older. Meanwhile, middle-aged people nowadays are starting to be replaced by members of Generation X, born from 1965 to 1980, and they have come of age during an era of declining divorce and remarriage rates.
This suggests that the divorce rate for the middle age group may continue to stagnate, while gray divorce for older adults, who are now primarily Baby Boomers, continues to grow.
Rebuilding finances later in life
The financial implications are clear: People are rebuilding their financial and personal lives late in the game. They've likely built a financial nest egg over the course of their working lives, and suddenly that's been cut in half with less time to recover financially. This may mean working longer and suffering a reduced standard of living at a time when they are also dealing with the emotional issues resulting from the failure of the marriage.
Gray divorcees also pay a social penalty in divorce. Not only has the marriage bond been broken, but adult children, other family members and friends have been negatively affected as well. They may wonder if they'll ever find another partner or fear that they're destined to live the rest of their lives in a state of loneliness. There may also be issues of declining health combined with the financial and emotional stress of divorce later in life.
Future columns will address the financial concerns of gray divorcees and offer practical advice, tips and hopefully some inspiration for those of you looking to build or rebuild the financial foundation for a meaningful life after divorce.
Andrew Hatherley is the founder of Transcend Retirement, LLC and Wiser Divorce Solutions, LLC and the host of The Gray Divorce Podcast. After going through his own mid-life divorce, Andrew decided to help other people avoid the financial and emotional stress so common to the process. He earned the designation Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® and is trained in mediation and Collaborative Divorce. He is also a member of the Amicable Divorce Network.
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