Grand-divorce on the rise as more pensioners split - Marcia Mediation

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The latest divorce bulletin from the Office for National Statistics, providing full-year figures for 2015, has plenty worthy of comment including the first 22 same-sex divorces just a year after same-sex marriage (as opposed to civil partnership) was introduced.

But it is the section on divorce among different age groups that has grabbed headlines, and while overall divorces among mixed-sex couples fell by 9.1% compared with 2014, the average age at divorce has increased steadily for both men and women every year since 1985.

Even before that time it was steady at around 37-38 for men and 35-36 for women, reflecting the slight age gap seen on average in mixed-sex marriages.

As of 2015, men on average divorce aged nearly 46 years, while women divorce at 43 and a half years, and ages at marriage are increasing as well.

For the oldest age group surveyed, aged over 65, the number of men divorcing increased from 8,059 to 8,697 in the decade to 2015, a rise of eight per cent, while among women the figure grew from 4,654 to 5,554, up by nearly a fifth over the same ten-year period.

It is perhaps not surprising that in this oldest demographic, the vast majority of marriages involve individuals who have been either divorced or widowed earlier in life, accounting for nine out of ten weddings.

So what is the driving force behind this increase in grand-divorce (and even great-grand-divorce) in recent years? Part of the answer lies in the average longevity of UK residents: with life expectancy increasing, more people are living for longer, which simply means there are more couples separating through divorce rather than death.

But other trends are adding to the overall effect. With many elderly couples having been married for several decades, changes in social mobility and economic freedom can be much more dramatic than they are for couples who married within the past few years.

The retirement age is increasing, and many older people are recognising that staying in work gives them the financial freedom to support their own lifestyle, just as at the younger end of the spectrum more people are surviving on a single wage for longer before cohabiting or getting married.

Overall and for all age groups, the ONS now estimates that 42% of all marriages will end in divorce – allowing for those that are likely to end due to mortality rates – with roughly half of these separations occurring within the first ten years.

Divorce for older people holds its own challenges and pitfalls, as seen earlier this year in the case of Tini and Hugh Owens, aged 66 and 78 respectively; while Mrs Owens filed for divorce, her husband refused, arguing that there is life left in their relationship, and that none of the permissible legal reasons for divorce under current English law apply in their case.

Ultimately in amicable separations where neither party is at fault, English divorce law requires as one of the grounds, a  five-year period of living separately, a significant period of time at any age, but especially during retirement years, and a reminder of the solemnity of marriage as a lifetime contract.