Going through a divorce is difficult and painful at any age. An increasing number of people are choosing to get divorced later in life, sometimes after decades of marriage. As the youngest Baby Boomers approach 60, and GenXers enter their 50s, this trend is almost certain to continue. Older age divorce, also known as “gray divorce,” may present different issues than divorces among younger people. The challenges are often financial, as older couples tend to have more complicated assets. They can also be emotional, requiring older spouses and their adult children to adjust to new family dynamics. Gray divorce can produce a wide range of disagreements at a time when finding an amicable resolution is especially important. If you are thinking about divorce later in life, a family attorney with experience in both divorce law and dispute resolution can help you understand your options. Louise Livesay has more than two decades of experience guiding people through the Minnesota divorce process.

What Is Gray Divorce?

Gray divorce is not a legal term in Minnesota or anywhere else. From a legal standpoint, the laws and procedures for divorce are the same no matter the spouses’ ages. Divorces between older people often present different issues and concerns, though, so it can be useful to draw a distinction based on age.

The term “gray divorce” first appeared around 2004, when a New York Times article noted changing statistics regarding divorce. It offered several possible explanations for why divorce was “no longer the special province of the 40-something red-Ferrari midlife-crisis set.” Longevity has fairly steadily increased in the U.S. over a long period of time. As people live longer, they may decide to make changes later in life. A cultural shift has also occurred over the past fifty years or so, making divorce more socially acceptable. People who might have remained in an unhappy marriage in the 1950s or ‘60s might feel more free to move on in the 21st century.

There is no stark dividing line that separates gray divorce from other divorces. Some family law professionals broadly define gray divorce as “divorce after 50.” Features of gray divorce may, but do not have to, include:

  • Both spouses are at least 50 years old.
  • They have been married for decades.
  • They are empty nesters, meaning that if they ever had children, the children are grown and have moved out.

Spouses do not have to be at or particularly near retirement age for their divorce to be “gray.” Most 50 year-olds are at least fifteen years away from retirement, after all. Retirement is often a factor in gray divorces, though, since people in their 50s are likely to have started significant contributions to retirement accounts.

How Is a Gray Divorce Different from Other Divorces?

Gray divorces tend to present different issues than other divorces. The parties to a gray divorce are less likely to have children who are still minors, so child custody and child support are not likely to be part of the case. While the children are adult children, the divorce still impacts the adult children, which is important to pay attention to in the process. The couple may have more complicated assets, making property division more of a challenge. Gray divorce can also bring on difficult emotional issues. While these issues are not necessarily worse than those found in other divorces, they tend to require a different approach.

Financial Issues

While this is by no means true for everybody, people who are in their 50s and older tend to have more assets than younger people. They might have substantial equity in their homes, or even own them outright. They might own their own well-established businesses, or have rather extensive investments. Older people are more likely to own a vacation home or other real estate. They also hopefully have retirement accounts or pensions, as well as other savings.

Many of these assets can be difficult to divide in a divorce. Retirement accounts, in particular, may require separate court orders to ensure that employers and plan administrators comply with both state and federal law.

The length of the marriage can also affect property division. The longer you and your spouse have been married, the more of your assets will be considered marital property. Without careful guidance, disagreements over property division after decades of marriage can start out complicated and get worse from there.

Divorce later in life can also require the spouses to make substantial changes to their plans for retirement. If they have a “nest egg” set aside, they may have to split it. This could mean that they cannot retire when they planned.

Spousal support also becomes more of an issue the longer a couple was married. This will almost certainly apply when one spouse earned substantially more than the other spouse or was the sole breadwinner.

Emotional Issues

Gray divorce might mean starting anew after spending decades with one person. Whatever the reasons for the split, that will cause a rollercoaster of emotion. Ending a long marriage could mean revising plans for retirement, as discussed above. It could also mean the loss of a familiar companion, which can be difficult even when the companionship was no longer good.

The impact of gray divorce on the couple’s adult children is also very important. No matter the age of your children, whether they are 18 or 50 when you get divorced, it will have an impact on them that you should not overlook. A powerful book on this topic is Home will Never Be the Same Again, A Guide for Adult Children of Gray Divorce by authors Carol R. Hughes and Bruce R. Frendenburg.

How Can a Collaborative Lawyer Help With a Gray Divorce?

Divorce does not have to be combative and ugly, but it can quickly turn that way if spouses are not careful to maintain a commitment to resolving the case peaceably. In gray divorce, longstanding resentments and conflicts could surface and turn the case into a battle. Many couples want to respect the years they were a family and continue to share in the life of their adult children and grandchildren. How people move through divorce will certainly impact the relationships.

An attorney with dispute resolution experience can help the parties keep their focus on moving forward. With older spouses, keeping an eye on the future is important so that they do not waste any time, and resources, on unnecessary fighting.

The collaborative divorce process is ideal for many gray divorces for another reason. The collaborative team typically includes a financial professional to help with property division, giving both people confidence in the numbers. In gray divorces with complex marital assets, their help will be indispensable.

Louise Livesay is a family attorney who has helped families in the Twin Cities area resolve disputes involving divorce and related matters for over twenty years. She believes that Minnesota’s family laws can help her clients transform their relationships and prepare for the next stage of life. If you have questions about divorce mediation, collaborative law, or other family law matters, please contact us today online or at (651) 964-3887.

Categories: Divorce