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7 Perils of Divorce Later in Life

Divorce after 50 or “gray divorce" is more common, bringing unique challenges.

Key points

  • Untangling and dividing assets can be complicated and emotional later in life.
  • There is a risk of feeling isolated at a stage of life when it is more difficult to rebuild social support.
  • The stress of divorce and its many consequences can affect mental and physical health.

Divorce after age 50 is often called “gray divorce.” As it has become more common, it brings unique challenges.

Source: Mikhail Nilov/Pexels
Decades of shared memories are often casualties in gray divorce
Source: Mikhail Nilov/Pexels

Lynda and Jeff (not their real names) came to discuss Jeff’s decision to end the marriage. “I will always love her,” he says, “But I’m just not ‘in love’ with her anymore.” Lynda agrees that their marriage has been “stale” for at least five years, but she doesn’t want the divorce. Lynda believes Jeff is having a late mid-life crisis. She asks, “Why would you want to unravel everything we’ve built together?” After more than 25 years together, Lynda wants Jeff to have a realistic view of what divorce will mean. She says bitterly, “Jeff’s got rose-colored glasses. He’s looking for a new life and new wife.”

1. Finances

Lynda and Jeff (a dentist) own a small dental practice, and Lynda handles the front office work. She states that she will no longer work there after the divorce. The practice will need an appraisal, and much of their personal expenses have historically been run through the business. They have some retirement savings and a vacation home that was inherited by Jeff, in addition to the family home. Since the children are adults, they agree that the home will need to be sold, or perhaps Jeff will buy Lynda out of the home. Lynda doesn’t want him to keep the family home, and Jeff doesn’t know if he can afford to keep it. Untangling their assets and dividing them will be complicated and emotional, and Lynda worries that she won’t have enough years ahead to recover financially.

At 57, she wonders who would hire her if she has to earn money. Many couples have had retirement plans, and divorce can disrupt these, especially if one spouse is relying on the other's retirement benefits or if they were planning to retire together. Lynda had counted on the retirement funds Jeff had accumulated and said he had always reassured her that there was enough for her if he were to predecease her.

For years, Jeff and Lynda had planned to travel around the country to national parks in an RV when they retired. He tells her in our meeting that he plans to retire in two years when he turns 65. Now he isn’t so sure he can promise her the financial security she had envisioned. He wants to make sure that he has enough money to retire and live comfortably. Lynda’s dream of travel seems to evaporate before her eyes.

2. Adult Children

Jeff and Lynda’s two children have finished college and started careers. Their daughter is married and their son is engaged to be married in a few months. Jeff says, “We’re looking forward to grandchildren in the next couple of years.” Lynda says she’s concerned that their children will struggle to cope with their parents' divorce since they had assumed their parents' marriage was stable. “They also know that I don’t want the divorce,” she says. Jeff is shocked that she has already spoken with them. I predict that without an amicable process, the children may worry about how the divorce will affect family gatherings and relationships with both parents. I recommend that they read and share a book to support their kids.

3. Social Disruptions

Most couples develop close social networks over many years, and this is true for Jeff and Lynda. Jeff worries about what Lynda is telling their friends about his decision to divorce. He thinks his friendships will be broken as people will blame him for the divorce. Lynda fears that friends will abandon her because “No one wants to socialize with a third wheel!” They both risk feeling isolated and, at their stage of life, it is more difficult to rebuild a social support system. We talk about whether some friends might be able to remain connected to them both, but they agree this is not likely.

4. Health

The stress of divorce and its many consequences can affect mental and physical health. Jeff reports that he’s recently developed high blood pressure, and Lynda has been depressed and anxious. Divorce is always stressful, but later in life, people are more vulnerable to long-term health effects. Divorce at any age can be emotionally taxing, but for older adults, it can be particularly challenging. In my experience, the feelings of grief, loss, and anxiety about the future are heightened in older adults. Adjusting to a new life after many years of marriage can feel overwhelming. As we discuss this, Lynda says, “I’m worried I will end up a bitter old woman like my mother.”

5. Living Arrangements and Lifestyle

For most people, the family home is the biggest asset and often needs to be sold to settle the financial aspect of the divorce. This means that later in life people need to find smaller, more affordable housing. Lynda is tearful when she describes having to leave the garden she cultivated for the past 25 years. She thinks Jeff will be able to afford a nice home, even if he downsizes, but “I will probably end up in a tiny basement apartment.” The reality is that one’s lifestyle is often downsized after divorce, but Jeff and I caution Lynda about imagining the worst.

6. Estate Planning

Divorce necessitates updating estate plans, wills, and beneficiary designations. Lynda raises the issue of Jeff’s new plan to retire and asks him to keep her as the beneficiary of his life insurance. Updating estate plans can be time-consuming and a source of conflict. However, failing to do so can lead to unintended consequences, such as assets passing to an ex-spouse instead of intended heirs. Lynda says she needs to find an attorney to help her protect herself. “If you retire, I don’t know how you’re gonna do it but you still need to pay my alimony,” she says angrily.

7. The Divorce Process

Lynda and Jeff need information about the next steps. I describe their options: mediation, litigation, and collaborative divorce. We discuss how complex their divorce might be, especially at their stage of life, and when it comes to dividing assets accumulated over decades and navigating issues such as spousal support and retirement benefits. They agree to look into collaborative divorce so that each will have the legal and emotional support of a collaborative team.

The challenges and complexities of gray divorce suggest that spouses need more support than spouses ending a short-term marriage earlier in life. Lynda and Jeff understand that they will need to plan carefully, seek support from friends and family, and continue to work with a therapist who specializes in divorce-related issues. Despite Lynda’s anger, they are motivated to divorce with respect, to avoid court, and to avoid involving their children. They decide to interview several collaborative divorce lawyers to see if that process will be the best fit for them. And we decide to check in in a few months to see how the process is going.

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2024

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