Why divorce after 50 is on the rise and what to expect

More Australian couples are getting divorced after the age of 50 than ever before. So what’s driving the ‘silver separation’ trend?

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the median age people in Australia get divorced is between 43 and 46, after roughly 13 years of marriage; and, among mixed-gender marriages, it is usually women who decide to leave first.

But there is another story playing out too: “silver separation”, also known as “grey divorce”.

Australian Institute for Family Studies data shows a significant rise in couples splitting after the age of 50.

While the end of marriages spanning 20 or more years used to account for around one in five divorces back in the 1980s and ʼ90s, these days close to a third of all divorces granted in Australia take place after the age of 50.

“Previously, it was quite rare to see clients separating in this age bracket,” family lawyer Cassandra Kalpaxis says.

“It’s becoming more common now and has almost surpassed all other age brackets in comparison.”

Why is silver separation on the rise?

Recent research commissioned by Australian Seniors suggests there are a number of reasons why older couples are calling it quits, with empty nest syndrome flagged as the leading cause.

Financial pressures and retirement adjustments are other common triggers.

Relationships Australia national executive officer Nick Tebbey says for couples in their 50s and 60s, a lot of big shifts are often happening at that life stage.

“Particularly for couples that have followed the stereotypical life course of getting together in their 20s or early 30s, then having children and perhaps focusing on work, it means you tend to spend less time together during those years – and any time you do have together is typically quite practically focused,” Nick says.

“Then, later in life, once the kids have left home and after retirement, suddenly you’re thrust back into each other’s company full time and at a time when you may not be the best version of yourself if you’ve lost the social network or sense of purpose that work provided.

“It’s a time when couples perhaps realise that their relationship isn’t working as well as it could or that they’ve got different expectations or different dreams and goals now.”

What is the divorce rate in Australia?

Estimates suggest that around one in three marriages in Australia will end in divorce.

According to the ABS, in 2022 alone, 49,241 couples got divorced – which was a return to “usual levels” after an administrative change led to 7000 more divorces being finalised in 2021.

How long does a divorce take?

“You need to be separated for at least one year before applying for divorce,” Cassandra says.

From the time of filing, she notes, it then takes about three or four months for the divorce order to be granted.

“You can seek a joint divorce order or a sole divorce order,” she says.

“In other words, the parties can agree to do it together but if they don’t agree, an application can be filed on a sole basis.”

How are assets divided during a divorce?

“There is case law about this – and a broad overview is that we look at who came into the relationship with what assets and liabilities, who made financial contributions during the relationship and who made non-financial contributions during the relationship, for example, who cared for children, who undertook the cooking and cleaning of the house,” Cassandra explains.

“We also look at inheritances and gifts, we examine the future needs of the parties, their ages and their earning capacity.

“This is obviously not an exhaustive list and there is more to this; however, this is a good place to understand where people should start.”

Is silver separation harder on women?

Research released earlier this year suggests the financial consequences of grey divorce are different for men and women.

The study showed while women experienced a 45 per cent decline in their standard of living, that of men fell by just 21 per cent.

Cassandra has this advice for women: “Seek super as part of your split and ensure you get financial advice about your goals to work out how that can be applied to your property settlement.”

She says women should speak up about their financial and non-financial contributions.

“Stop saying to your lawyer, ‘I don’t want to ask for that as I don’t want to make him upset’ – if I had a dollar for every time a woman has said this to me!”

Is it worth considering counselling?

Absolutely! “Counselling and other support services can help you navigate the challenges you’re facing and can also help you reach decisions, whether it’s that you do want to stay together and work on the relationship or reaching a decision that perhaps the relationship has run its course,” Nick says.

Counselling can also provide support if you are struggling post-separation.

“It’s important to know that if you’re struggling to deal with the loss or grief associated with a relationship coming to an end, help is available,” Nick says.

“Relationships Australia also has a dedicated service around the country called Senior Relationship Services, which is dedicated to helping people facing the unique issues associated with later-life changes.”

For relationship support, visit Relationships Australia or call 1300 364 277.

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Written by Karen Fittall.