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Deciding to pursue a divorce is never easy. Divorce means you’ll face significant life changes, including changes in your living arrangements, finances, and your relationships with friends and family. However, you’ll likely experience an additional layer of complication if you’re seeking a divorce later in life.
A gray divorce in Arizona presents additional challenges you may not have considered. If you are seeking a divorce later in life, it is important to plan for the additional emotional weight a gray divorce can carry, as well as how factors like retirement benefits, Social Security, and more can affect the division of your assets. To navigate your gray divorce successfully, it is crucial to secure reliable representation from a divorce and family law attorney who understands the unique demands of divorcing later in life.
What Is Gray Divorce?
As the name suggests, a gray divorce is a divorce of a couple who are both over 50 years of age. In many cases, these individuals have been married for quite some time. So, why is gray divorce so significant?
Studies of value systems and how they differ among generations indicate that younger generations, such as Millennials and Gen Y, are choosing to postpone marriage or skip it altogether. Later marriages tend to have a lower divorce rate, and a lower prevalence of marriage serves to reduce the number of divorces experienced by these generations. Boomers, on the other hand, were raised in a generation where marriage was expected early on, leading to an increase in divorces later in life. The divorce rate for couples in long-term marriages has been on the rise since the 1970s.[fn]Brown, S. L., & Lin, I. F. (2012). The gray divorce revolution: Rising divorce among middle-aged and older adults, 1990–2010. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 67(6), 731-741.[/fn]
How Common Is Gray Divorce?
While gray divorce has been increasing for nearly 50 years, rates have roughly doubled since the 1990s for American adults over 50.[fn]Williams, N. A. (2020). So, this is fifty: The gray divorcees. Trends St. Cts., 52.[/fn] Aside from the generational differences mentioned earlier, many attribute this rise to the reduction of stigma associated with divorce. Historically, divorce was frowned upon and even illegal in many parts of the US.
In the 1850s, a couple could only divorce under certain circumstances that usually favored the male. In the 1920s and 30s, more divorces were allowed, but local courts still required a significant burden of proof for a divorce to be granted. In the 1960s, restrictions were further reduced, and most couples could be granted a legal divorce in 2-5 years following separation.
The rise in gray divorce may also be attributed to the rise in life expectancy. An individual in their 50s may still have 20, 30, or even 40 years of marriage ahead of them. This realization is causing more couples to split in their later years, allowing them to continue to live independent, fulfilling lives.
In the past, divorce was often surrounded by feelings of shame and failure. Today, however, the stigma has significantly decreased. You may even find yourself invited to a divorce party to celebrate a friends’ newfound freedom. This sweep of social acceptance has provided a smoother path for gray divorces.
Reasons for a Gray Divorce
There are usually multiple factors at play when a couple decides to separate. The same can be said for older couples who choose to pursue a divorce later in life. Some of these factors are common to many divorcing couples, while others are heavily dependent on the age and life experiences of the splitting couple.
Here are some of the primary reasons couples seek a divorce later in life:
Finances can play a key role in causing strife between partners, regardless of age. In some instances, a breadwinner spouse may develop resentment towards their spouse who was a lower earner or did not work outside the home. Resentment could also arise if one spouse worked more and feels entitled to make all the decisions concerning estate and money.
In the early years as a married couple, it is easier to recover from financial blunders. However, if you are close to retirement, it can be much more difficult to make up for budget issues or poor investments. When dealing with financial issues later in life, pressures and problems can be compounded.
As people grow older, their friend circle naturally gets a bit smaller. Many people find themselves growing less physically active, and the hobbies they once enjoyed may no longer be a possibility. When this happens, some older adults turn to vices such as alcohol or gambling. This can strain finances as well as relationships with both the spouse and adult children.
As humans, we experience sexual needs at all ages and stages of life. When these needs aren’t being met, some may venture outside of the marriage to get the attention they desire.[fn]Crowley, J. E. (2018). Gray Divorce. In: Gray divorce. University of California Press.[/fn] Our sexual needs also change at different rates for men and women as we get older. There is also the pressure of online and mobile apps geared to helping older men or women find a younger companion. Even without actual infidelity, sexual incompatibility can greatly impact the success rates of marriages.
Stronger Sense of Independence for Women
Women have made significant advancements in the last few decades. Women are fully capable of building successful careers, and this newfound independence allows women to shake feelings of being trapped in an unhappy marriage. This new level of confidence allows women to seek a happier life alone rather than staying with an ill-fitting partner to secure a financial future. In addition, growing life expectancies have made it possible for many women to actively decide to start over, regardless of age.
Empty Nest Syndrome
Having children, pets, family, and a social life can fill years of a couple’s life. Many people don’t realize they rely on children and other factors to keep them active and happy. Once children are grown, the household can suddenly become much quieter. When these and other distractions eventually diminish, this can rock the relationships of many older spouses.3
This is often referred to as empty nest syndrome, and it can have a resounding impact on how a couple feels about one another. When things slow down, one spouse may realize that their significant other isn’t the same person they married years prior. The other spouse may have been unhappy for years but wanted to provide a good example to their growing children. Once the children are grown, many couples make the decision that there is no longer a reason to stay in their current situation.
Retirement can be another source of friction in older married couples. When a person retires, a major part of their identity must suddenly change. Retirement can cause a void that is difficult to fill, and this can cause tension between spouses. Many retirees also experience depression, putting additional pressure on an already stressful situation.[fn]Li, W., Ye, X., Zhu, D., & He, P. (2021). The longitudinal association between retirement and depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Epidemiology, 190(10), 2220-2230.[/fn]
How to best spend retirement years can also be a source of tension for older couples. One may want to move closer to their grown children while another may want to move to a retirement community in another location. This additional conflict can be an impetus for divorce.
Gray Divorce: Additional Factors to Consider
As mentioned, individuals over 50 are living longer, healthier lives than previous generations, which can be a contributing factor to the increase in gray divorces. The old mentality to “stick it out” has been replaced with “do what makes you happy.” While pursuing happiness is a worthy endeavor, it is also important to consider the many unique issues those facing a gray divorce will need to address.
Retirement Accounts and Social Security
During prime working years, most individuals start to build retirement accounts to secure a reliable financial future. Similarly, Social Security benefits provide financial help to retired individuals. When a gray divorce occurs, these benefits must suddenly cover two households instead of just one.
For many divorcing older couples, their retirement is their largest asset. In a divorce, retirement benefits are generally split between the divorcing spouses. This could have serious financial repercussions, especially for a person who is no longer part of the workforce.
Alimony can be a factor to consider in any divorce but tends to be much more common in marriages that have lasted a long time. If one spouse was the breadwinner, the court may order alimony payments so the other spouse can continue to maintain a similar lifestyle as they enjoyed before the divorce. This could lead to a financial strain for the spouse ruled to pay alimony.
Length of the marriage can also play a role. While a shorter-term marriage in a younger couple could result in just a few years of court-ordered alimony, until the recipient remarries, an older established couple could be looking at years of alimony. This is especially true if a recipient spouse cannot return to the workplace.
The Marriage Home
Separating assets and properties that have been shared for years can be complex, both in courtroom negotiations as well as emotionally. Dealing with emotionally charged assets can cause divorce proceedings to drag on, causing added stress and financial burdens to the separating couple. In general, dividing assets that have been shared for years can be more challenging, since they have been shared for a number of years. It can also be harder to recover from the loss of these assets when a spouse is no longer working.
Divorce can impact children significantly, even adult children. If you are still supporting an adult child, this could complicate the division of your assets. This process can also have long-term repercussions on the relationship between children and divorcing spouses.[fn]Lin, I. F., Brown, S. L., & Mellencamp, K. A. (2022). The roles of gray divorce and subsequent repartnering for parent–adult-child relationships. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 77(1), 212-223.[/fn] In addition to the emotional toll, adult children can feel the need to be more involved in the divorce process. They may feel pressure to help financially, provide housing options, or take over powers of attorney for medical or financial decisions.
Finding yourself suddenly single in your 50s can be overwhelming. You may have already committed the majority of your life to your spouse, and the idea of dating again can be daunting. However, the way people date has significantly changed due to technology, which can prove beneficial for those reentering the dating scene at an older age. There are numerous dating sites and apps that are designed specifically for older individuals. This can provide reassurance that just because you’re seeking a gray divorce doesn’t mean you’ll be left alone.
What Is the Average Cost of a Gray Divorce?
In Arizona, an uncontested divorce costs $20,000 on average, but can range anywhere from $5,000-$100,000 depending on complexity, time spent in court, and the need for expert testimony. Any disagreement in court can draw out the divorce process, causing additional lawyer and court fees.
As mentioned, gray divorce is often more complex than a standard divorce earlier in life for many reasons. In general, older couples have more property and assets tied together. There is also the added pressure of emotional attachment developed over years. As gray divorces can include spousal support, alimony, retirement benefits, social security benefits, pensions, veteran benefits, and more, they often incur higher fees.
Seek the Help A Divorce Attorney
There are several reasons people chose to seek a divorce later in life. When you consider the greater independence, longer life spans, and a reduction in stigma associated with gray divorce, it’s easy to see why gray divorce rates are on the rise. While the Arizona divorce process can be complex, it can ultimately provide freedom a former couple can enjoy for years to come.
*Editor’s Note: This article was originally published June, 2021 and has been revised March, 2022.
Ryan Reppucci, Founder/Director of Legal Operations of The Valley Law Group, is recognized as one of Phoenix’s leading family law attorneys. After graduating from Arizona State with the highest honors and inclusion in America’s most prestigious student honor societies, Ryan attended the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. His career as a law student was decorated with numerous awards, including the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law Book Award, nomination for membership in Who’s Who Among Students in American Colleges and Universities, as well as Moot Court.