It’s June, one of the most popular months of the year to marry. So, let’s talk about young folks and divorce. In 2017, around one million couples in the U.S. called it quits. That may seem like a lot of divorced couples, however the rate of divorce — just like the rate of marriage — is down. But is it really?

divorce and marriage

We don’t care about the young folks

What is happening today is that younger married couples are less likely to split up than they once were, driving the trend. But, at the same time, the rate of divorce for older generations has increased in a phenomenon known as “gray” divorce.

Divorces hit a historical high point in 1979, when 22.6 marriages out of every 1,000 broke up, according to researchers at the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green University.

By 2017, the rate had dropped to 16.1 divorces for every 1,000 marriages. That’s a decrease of 29% from the high point and the lowest the divorce rate has been in 40 years.

One cause, researchers believe, is that people are delaying marriage.

“There’s a fear of divorce or a specter of divorce looming large in people’s mind. They don’t want to make a mistake. They’re waiting longer to get married to divorce-proof their marriage.”

In 1963, the average woman married at around age 20, but by 2017, the median age at marriage was 27 for women and 29 for men. Using data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics and the American Community Survey, Bowling Green researchers calculated annual rates of divorce for girls and women ages 15 and older by dividing the number divorced in the past 12 months by the number divorced in the past 12 months plus the number currently married and then multiplying the result by 1,000.

We don’t care about the old folks

When couples choose to divorce in their 30s or 40s, they still have time to recover financially, because adults at that age have several years, if not decades, left in their careers.

But when divorce occurs when a couple is in their 50s or later, careers may either be coming to a close or are completed, and spouses are often living on fixed incomes provided through Social Security or retirement benefits.

I’ve written about this subject before. Here are some things to consider:

Valuing the Marital Estate – By the time a couple enters the golden years, they may have gold to divide, including businesses, retirement funds, and vacation homes. Valuing these assets can be difficult. The value of a business may not be apparent from balance sheets, and the sale or transfer of assets may have tax consequences. As a result, a financial advisor may be an important component in the divorce.

Medical Care – Health insurance is often tied to the employment of one spouse. With aging comes diminishing health, and declining cognitive ability. Courts may need to intervene if one party has dwindling capacity to handle their own affairs.

Long-Term Arrangements – Legal arrangements, such as wills and trusts, need to be reviewed to make sure they reflect post-divorce wishes. The same is true for long-term care, such as medical directives, living wills and trusts.

Retirement Plans – After 20 years of marriage, retirement plans can be substantial . . . and complex. Retirement plans vary in kind, and they all have different restrictions, tax consequences, distribution and vesting rules.

Lifestyle adjustment – Younger couples have time to re-accumulate wealth after divorce, but in Gray Divorces, the spouses have less time to re-establish themselves financially. One or both may be close to or in retirement, and face living on half of what they earmarked for retirement.

Talking only me and you

Researchers also examined the trends by age group and found that the drop in divorces has been driven by younger people. The greatest decrease they observed was among 15- to 24-year-olds, whose divorce rate dropped by 43%. The rate for 25- to 34-year-olds also dropped substantially, a decrease of about 30%.

After that, the rates of “gray divorce” more than doubled. For 55- to 64-year-olds, it climbed from 5 divorces per 1,000 marriages to 15 divorces per 1,000 marriages, and for those 65 and older, it rose from 1.8 to 5.

For comparison, the researchers also calculated marriage rates. In 1970, nearly a decade before the divorce peak, there were 76.5 marriages for every 1,000 unmarried women. In 2017, the rate had dropped to 32.2 marriages for every 1,000 unmarried women, a decrease of 58%.

 “The script was high school, maybe the military or college, and then you settle down,” Dr. Jordan said. “Now, it’s high school, maybe the military or college, maybe some period of self-discovery.”

That doesn’t mean fewer people have been pairing up or even delaying entering into romantic partnerships. But instead of marrying right after high school or college, more couples have simply moved in together, usurping marriage as the most common relationship experience in young adulthood.

Forty percent of women who wedded for the first time between 1980 and 1984 lived with their husband before they married, according to the Bowling Green researchers. From 2010 through 2014, 70% did.

That suggests for more couples, “I do” has morphed into, “I might.” But when they finally pledge “till death do us part,” they mean it.

The Wall Street Journal article is here.