Understanding the Gray Divorce Phenomenon

Posted on September 01, 2023 02:12pm
Understanding the Gray Divorce Phenomenon

Divorce can be a stressful life event for anyone, regardless of age. While there is a common and widely held belief that half of marriages end in divorce, this is not a fact—partly because the divorce rate is challenging to measure due to variances in a range of factors, from timing to generational differences to geographic location.

In reality, research shows that the divorce rate peaked at 41% in the 1980s and has been in a slow but steady decline ever since. However, this isn’t the case for older U.S. couples. Since 1990, the divorce rate for people aged 50 or older has doubled, leading to a surge in late-in-life divorces known as the gray divorce phenomenon.

What are the reasons behind the phenomenon, and what issues can couples anticipate while preparing for a gray divorce in Washington? In this blog, we’ll review why the gray divorce rate is on the rise and explore some critical issues unique to older couples preparing to end marriages later in life.  

What Is a Gray Divorce?

Put simply, the term “gray divorce” was coined by The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) to define divorces involving individuals 50 years or older. In fact, the U.S. Census Department released a 2021 report showing that 34.9% of yearly divorces involved couples aged 55 years or older. While divorce certainly isn’t unique to older populations, the surge in late-life divorces begs the question: Why the change of heart, and why now?

5 Reasons Behind the Gray Divorce Phenomenon in 2023

Research shows there may be various factors associated with the increase in late-in-life divorces. Below are 3 key reasons behind the gray divorce phenomenon:

1. Married couples are living longer

It’s no secret that advancements in science, medicine, and technology have allowed Americans to lead healthier—and therefore longer—lives. Even in the aftermath of the 2020 pandemic, the average life expectancy in the U.S. in 2023 is 79.11 years—almost 10 years longer than the 1960s, the tail end of the “baby boomer” birth range.

Understandably, this can lead older couples to reflect on the next 20-30 years with the same partner with more seriousness, leading some to opt for divorce out of the desire to live their remaining years as happily and comfortably as possible.

2. Reduced divorce stigma

In 2023, the stigma around divorce is lower than ever due to various reasons, such as more visibility, varying definitions of marriage and family, cultural shifts in the definition of “traditional” marriages, and increased economic independence for women, among others. This has encouraged more couples to opt for gray divorces without experiencing the same degree of guilt and fear of social backlash, financial repercussions, and other consequences typical of being a divorcée in the past.

3. Deciding to stay together temporarily “for the kids”

In many gray divorces, the dissolution of marriage is mutual—and for some Washington couples, this agreement wasn’t a recent one. Many families may opt to stay together “for the kids” or other understandable family-related reasons, putting off divorce until they become empty-nesters or arrive at other life stages that may warrant an opportunity to start over.  

4. Cultural shifts and generational differences

When baby boomers were marrying at significant rates, society upheld entirely different standards for the institution of marriage and American “family life.” For example, the majority of boomers were raised and socially conditioned to uphold the sanctity of marriage.

A biblical emphasis on wives being compliant and submissive in marriage while husbands led and provided for their families was prominent, contributing to harmful gender stereotypes and perpetuating the transactional nature of marriage as an institution and source of economic security for families.

In 2023, cohabitation is significantly more common, as is single parenthood, and stay-at-home dads, empowering many Americans to finally choose for themselves what happiness means—even if that definition doesn’t fit neatly into the pre-stitched fabric of society and “married life.”

5. Higher divorce rate for remarriages

One 2013 report showed that a whopping 86% of baby boomers born between 1957-1964 were remarried by age 46. A high remarriage rate among older populations is likely contributing to the gray divorce phenomenon, as the divorce rate is higher for remarried couples than first-time marriages.

Put simply, research shows that more marriages equate to higher divorce rates, with over 60% of second marriages and 70% of third marriages ending in divorce.

Key Issues to Prepare For During Gray Divorce

Gray divorces can come with unique challenges for older couples that younger divorcees are less likely to encounter, making it all the more important for older individuals to secure dependable representation from a divorce attorney with experience with this particular type of divorce. Some common issues faced by couples that are unique to gray divorce include:

  • Dividing debts and property – Older couples usually have more assets accumulated over the years, making property division more complex. This could include multiple real estate properties, investments, and valuable personal property. At the same time, there may also be significant debts that need to be divided. It's important to understand how Washington's community property laws apply to these assets and debts.
  • Dividing retirement benefits – When couples have been married for long periods of time, they generally have substantial retirement assets that must be divided. This can be a complex process because retirement accounts are governed by specific laws and regulations. The division of these assets can significantly impact each spouse's financial security during their retirement years.
  • Spousal maintenance – In Washington, the court may award spousal maintenance (alimony) to a spouse. The amount and duration of spousal maintenance vary greatly and are determined by a range of factors, such as the length of the marriage, the age and physical condition of each partner, and each spouse's financial resources and earning capacities. In gray divorces, it isn’t uncommon for one spouse to have been out of the workforce for years or decades, making it difficult for them to become financially independent post-divorce.
  • Health insurance and medical expenses – Health insurance is usually a critical issue for older couples undergoing gray divorces. If one spouse has been covered under the other's insurance, they may lose this coverage after a divorce and could face high premiums or even denial of coverage due to pre-existing conditions. Additionally, as people age, medical costs generally increase, and this needs to be factored into any settlement agreement.
  • Adult children and grandchildren – While child custody and child support decisions generally don’t apply to gray divorces, adult children and grandchildren may still be affected. The emotional and logistical impact of gray divorce on the family unit as a whole can also be challenging and difficult to prepare for, regardless of how old the couple’s children are at the time of divorce.

Turn to the Region’s Premier Family Law Firm

If you are divorcing a long-term spouse, we understand this is more than just a legal process. It is an acutely personal experience. McKinley Irvin’s mission is to deliver the very best service while achieving an optimal outcome. Call 206-397-0399 to request a consultation with a skilled family lawyer.

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