Who’s getting divorced in Massachusetts these days? People over 50

The new face of divorce has gray hair.

While divorce rates overall have stabilized and even inched downward in recent years, the divorce rate among couples who are 50 or older doubled between 1990 and 2010, according to a study by Ohio’s Bowling Green State University.

What’s more, these so-called “gray divorces” now account for more than 28% of all marital splits – up from just 10% back in 1990.

The reasons for this trend are unclear, although some people have speculated that seniors are living longer and are more active than they used to be, and may be less willing to stick it out in a loveless marriage once their children are grown. Also, there’s been a significant increase in divorces that are initiated by older women, who may be more independent than in an earlier generation.

What is clear is that there are many legal issues that have special relevance for seniors who are contemplating divorce.

Health care is one. People who are over 50 but not yet eligible for Medicare may have significant health care expenses, and it’s important to plan carefully for these at the time of a breakup.

Retirement accounts also tend to be a more important issue for older divorcing couples, since they typically are a much bigger part of the pie than they are for young couples. Dividing a couple’s interests in pensions, 401(k) accounts, IRAs and profit-sharing plans can be highly complicated. This is especially true if spouses have taken out loans against these accounts.

The issue of “who gets the house” is also more difficult because it may affect planning for government benefit programs such as Medicaid.

Many legal issues have special relevance for seniors who are contemplating divorce.

Older couples are more likely to have a vacation home or investment property, and splitting this type of property can have complex implications for capital gains taxes. That’s because second homes and investment property don’t get the same beneficial capital gains treatment as a primary residence.

It’s also important to plan for Social Security. If you were married for 10 years or longer, than even if you get divorced, you may be able (in certain circumstances) to collect Social Security benefits based on your spouse’s work record – even if your spouse hasn’t retired, and even if your spouse remarries and his or her new spouse starts collecting benefits based on the same work record.

You might also be eligible for Social Security survivor’s benefits even if you divorce your spouse, depending on your situation.