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Rising Divorce Rates Among Older Couples Bring Unique Concerns

Older Americans are divorcing more often than in the past, raising particular issues for the divorcing spouses in particular, and for U.S. society in general, particularly in states such as Florida with high numbers of older residents. Two major areas of potential vulnerability exist for seniors who divorce in their later years: physical well being and financial security.

The Bowling Green Study

A 2012 study of “gray divorce” has attracted significant national attention. Sociologists Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin looked in depth at existing research and at U.S. statistical information from 1990 through 2009, making these observations:

  • In the approximately 20 years studied, the divorce rate doubled for adults 50 and older, while the rate overall remained flat.
  • In 2009, about one-quarter of all divorces were of people over 50 (more than 600,000 older divorcing people), compared with about one-tenth in 1990.
  • The longer the marriage lasts, the less likely it is that divorce will end it; divorce is much more likely in remarriages and aging baby boomers are in the first generation to have divorced in significant numbers earlier in life, making remarriage (and therefore a second divorce) more likely later in life.
  • Divorce is becoming more socially accepted.
  • Women are becoming better able to achieve economic independence.
  • Longer life spans may contribute to older people being less willing to stay in unhappy marriages.
  • For those over 50, divorce rates varied by ethnicity, with African Americans divorcing at the highest rate and whites the lowest.

Legal Counsel Invaluable

Because spouses will less often be in the picture, divorces among seniors will likely put more pressure on the extended families of newly single elders, and on institutions and governmental programs that support older Americans financially and medically. Retaining a knowledgeable family law attorney who has handled “gray divorces” can be crucial in fighting to help a divorcing senior emerge with robust financial resources and support systems.

In particular, the lawyer should pay careful attention to a fair division of marital property, including retirement assets, as well as to health and life insurance, and alimony payments (spousal support).

The attorney should also assist the divorcing spouse with related legal matters such as a new last will and testament to designate beneficiaries for his or her property at death. Legal counsel can also draft legal documents to appoint a power of attorney to handle financial matters should the individual become unable to handle them, and to name a health care surrogate to make medical decisions if the divorcing elder becomes incapacitated. Presumably the ex-spouse would have formerly had these roles. After divorce, a divorcing senior would probably not want his or her fate left in the hands of an ex-spouse!