Gray Divorces Pose Unique Challenges For Aging Couples

Much to the shock of the country earlier this summer, Al and Tipper Gore announced their impending divorce after 40 years of marriage. However, to those who routinely help people navigate through a divorce, this announcement was not nearly as much of a surprise. The Gores' decision merely brought public attention to the well-established and growing trend of "gray divorce" — the breakup of long-term marriages.

As Americans live longer and lead more active lives, the divorce rates are edging upward for married couples that have weathered decades together. According to U.S. Census statistics, women married between 1970 and 1974 had a 50 percent chance of reaching a 30th wedding anniversary. This rate is significantly lower than those who married just 10 years earlier, who had a 60 percent probability of reaching the same milestone.

These statistics bear out in reality. A social worker who focuses on marital conflict told the Wall Street Journal that those with marriages of 30 to 40 years now comprise the biggest part of her practice.

Although each divorce embodies unique circumstances, those working with couples divorcing later in life note common themes. Often, these couples have grown children and finances that are in order, but have marital relationships that have been long-suffering.

These factors alone can hardly account for the shift. Older couples have long faced the time when their children have grown and often have simply maintained their marriages despite having grown apart, indicating that there must be some other factors at play.

In many cases, older women have become less dependent on their husbands for financial support, making departures financially feasible. In other cases, one spouse or the other finds that it's time to embrace a true calling — choosing a new profession or simply seeking a life that brings more joy than a stagnant marriage does. As people are remaining active longer, the empty-nest years are extended and offer greater opportunities than they once did.

Regardless of the cause, though, gray divorces come with unique complications. Although child custody and support are rarely problems, the arguments over the financial aspects of divorce are likely to be much more important than with younger couples.

When marital assets must be divided between two older spouses, each is left with only half of what was expected to cover the later years of life. In many cases, these individuals are approaching retirement, leaving limited time in which to make up the difference.

With these challenges, it is particularly important if you face divorce later in life to work with a family law attorney who understands these unique issues. Although divorce is never easy, a knowledgeable divorce lawyer can help to effectively prepare you for whatever may come next.