The Chicago Family Law Blog

'Gray Divorce' On the Rise; Baby Boomers Seek Split

If it wasn’t clear from the headline, “Gray Divorce” is an emerging trend in divorce statistics that indicates that Baby Boomers, more than any generation before them, are choosing to end unhappy marriages in their later years. According to a study by Bowling Green State University, the divorce rate among middle-aged and older adults doubled between 1990 and 2009, while the overall divorce rate declined.

It’s not just the United States either. According to the BBC, in Japan, they call it “retired husband syndrome.” Essentially, these older Americans (and Japanese) are heading into retirement and instead of continuing in an unhappy marriage, they are seeking companionship and happiness elsewhere.

There are many potential reasons for the increased divorce rate. In general, divorce is now more acceptable in America than in times past. Plus, the increase in two-income families means that one spouse is no longer dependant on the other for income.

Divorce in the later years often complicates the divorce process greatly. For one, if the marriage has lasted a long time, that typically means the assets are greater and far more commingled than in a shorter marriage. More assets can mean more fighting in court.

Another significant question is what does one do with retirement accounts, social security benefits, and pensions? These accounts are not easily divisible and often if the money is taken out in advance, there are significant penalties. In most cases, a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) can be drafted by the couples' attorneys and submitted to the retirement plan to mitigate the damage.

There is also the question of spousal support. The longer the marriage, the greater the potential for long-term alimony (or "spousal maintenance"), especially in cases where one party relied upon the other for income. Even in two-income families, if there is an income disparity or a disability, one spouse could presumably end up supporting their ex-spouse off the limited income provided by a pension or 401(k).

Divorce is almost always a difficult experience. However, divorce later in life, especially after a long marriage, is almost guaranteed to be an expensive and legally-complicated process. The rising rate of Baby Boomer divorce might mean more clients for lawyers, therapists, and bartenders alike.

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