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The Impact of Divorce on Adult Children


Divorce is a difficult decision at any age, but when older parents with adult children come to the decision to divorce, they often leave their children out of the equation, while divorcing parents with young children are much more likely to make their children’s needs the focal point of all of their divorce-related decisions. Though it’s true that courts no longer have jurisdiction over the children of divorcing parents when they are over the age of 18, that doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t consider the impact their divorce may have on their kids, even if matters of custody and child support no longer apply.

Since the number of American adults seeking a divorce over age 50 has doubled since 1990, more studies showing the significant impacts of “gray divorce” on adult children have emerged, making it clear that adult children face significant impacts when parents divorce.

What Does a “Gray Divorce” Mean for Adult Children?

The court doesn’t decide on the amount of time adult children spend with each parent and doesn’t make decisions about financial support for adult children of divorcing parents, but that doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t consider the impacts of divorce on their children. Many couples stay together until their children are adults under the impression that adult children don’t face consequences when parents break up a family. While no one should stay in an unhappy or toxic marriage, it’s still important to consider the following impacts of older adult divorce or “gray divorce:”

  • Difficulty dividing time and holidays: adult children may have trouble deciding which parent to spend major holidays with, or may have to divide the day between two different households in order to prevent hard feelings from one parent or the other. Spending time with both parents takes twice as long when parents no longer live together
  • Dividing loyalties: adult children may end up in the crossfire when one parent speaks negatively about the other or one parent asks questions about the other parent’s new relationship
  • Reversed relationship dynamics: over 20% of older divorced women and 37% of divorced men over age 50 remarry or re-partner within 10 years of a divorce. Children of divorced parents may find themselves with parents who come to them with questions and observations about dating and relationships.
  • Less trust in marriage and relationships: because some parents remain together until their children are grown, discovering that their parents’ relationship was not what they believed it to be can shake the foundations of trust and belief in the marital relationship for adult children
  • Loss of “home:” Finally, many adult children of older divorcing parents feel a sense of grief over the loss of a “home” environment, even if one parent retains the family home since both parents no longer reside there.

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Are There Financial Consequences for the Adult Children of Divorced Parents?

Though adults don’t typically depend on their parents for income, the adult children of parents who divorce later in life may still experience some financial impacts from the divorce. According to studies:

  • Women more often experience a substantially higher financial loss compared to men after divorce, so older divorced women may require financial assistance from their adult children, or less often, older men may require financial help from adult children
  • The assets of married adults at retirement age are significantly higher than those of their divorced counterparts, potentially impacting adult children’s inheritance
  • Divorced parents may remarry and add new legal heirs to their estate, further impacting inheritance left to children as well as dividing life insurance benefits
  • Adult children in college report a loss of financial support more often when older parents divorce

Though the courts don’t involve themselves in the financial impacts of divorce on a couple’s adult children, it doesn’t mean that those impacts don’t exist.

Dealing With Gray Divorce

Over half of all adult children of divorcing parents report negative feelings associated with the divorce, but the majority are able to resolve them over time. Older adults should resist over-confiding with their children about their emotions or sharing negative observations about the other parent with their adult children. They should also stay mindful of the sense of loss that their children may experience and do their best to reassure them of a continuing close relationship and the intention to remain a family despite the new circumstances.

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