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Mark Miller: Remaking Retirement

When Couples Retire Together--or Don't

There's a growing 'couples disconnect' when it comes to retirement, says contributor Mark Miller. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Married couples really need to step up their game when it comes to discussing their retirement plans.

A recent survey by Fidelity Investments found that 43% of married couples disagreed about the age when they will retire, and 54% don't know how much they will need to save for retirement (including 46% of people who already are retired or getting close).

These data points come as no surprise to Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, an expert on wealth and psychology and author of How to Give Financial Advice to Couples: Essential Skills for Balancing High-Net-Worth Clients' Needs.

"It's similar to a lot of other money conversations that we tend to put off," she says. "Either we think it will lead to a fight or that we'll have plenty of time to talk about later."

But the couples disconnect also reflects the reality of retirement today--the timing is much more fluid, with couples often staggering their timing for financial or career reasons. Indeed, recent research concludes that it's rare for couples to retire at the same time these days.

The study reviewed data from the University of Michigan Health and Retirement survey and found that the pathways people take to retirement are complex, frequently involving phased-retirement, bridge jobs, and periods of nonemployment and returns to work. Decisions often are impacted by eligibility for pensions, on-the-job stress, physical limitations and caregiving responsibilities, the researchers found. And for a majority of couples, there is a "discordant" phase, when one spouse works longer than the other.

The "a-ha" moment in this study was the researchers' decision to look at couples over time, rather than taking a snapshot only of an initial retirement decision, says Katherine Carman, a senior economist at Rand Corp. and lead author of the study. That began with Carman's observation of the retirement timeline that began seven years ago for her own parents, both with professional careers and age 67 at the time.

"My father wanted to retire and my mother did not," she recalls. "So my father transitioned to a part-time position and my mother continued to work full-time--but a while later he was still frustrated and wanted more leisure time. So he retired completely and she went to part-time. And now she is fully retired."

Carman found that these patterns were apparent for a majority of couples: She studied 2,600 couples and found 1,400 unique retirement pathways.

"We tend to think that people retire at the same time, but when we take a longer approach and look at multiple years, we see much more diversity," she says.

The younger households studied were more likely to experience full or partially "discordant" retirements (meaning that they did not retire at the same time). The phenomenon also was more commonly found among couples with larger age differences between them.

From a financial standpoint, there's plenty of good news here. Continued income from one spouse helps insulate couples from post-retirement financial shocks, such as an emergency health problem or large home repair. Steady income also could enable the "retired" spouse to pursue a passion.

"Maybe one spouse has retired from a corporate job he wasn't thrilled about," Kingsbury says. "Maybe he wants to do some volunteering or start a business while the other spouse is still gainfully employed; this makes it much less risky."

In some situations, staggered retirement enables both spouses to stay on employer-subsidized health insurance, reducing premium and out-of-pocket costs. It also makes possible more years of contributing to retirement accounts, and fewer years of living on savings. Perhaps most meaningfully, ongoing income from work in the household can pave the way for one spouse to delay filing for Social Security, boosting lifetime guaranteed income significantly.

Staggered retirement dates also present personal opportunities.

"It's not necessarily a problem; first of all, you aren't both the same person," Kingsbury says. "Couples may have somewhat different visions of retirement, especially when they have lived very active lives and both have had careers. The visions of how, where, and when can differ."

But all these complexities underscore the need for good communication.

"Couples need to talk with one another about what's important to each of them individually and as a couple," she says. "For many people, it's a good idea to talk about retirement in two phases. It might be that you'll be operating a little more independently of one another in the first phase, and more together later on."

Kingsbury trains financial advisers and coaches on how to initiate these discussions with clients, and one method she likes--and recommends couples try on their own--is to both pick one word that describes what retirement means to you, and why.

"It's an interesting exercise, and it can give you a quick insight into how your partner sees that next phase," she says.

Couples should discuss how much time they plan to spend together or apart, she suggests, and how they will manage that part of retirement.

"The typical couple doesn't spend every hour of every day together, and it can be a big change," she says. "Be conscious of that, and know it's a work in progress--you can start at one point and make adjustments along the way."

Ongoing communication about life plans also is a key point for Dorian Mintzer, author of The Couple's Retirement Puzzle and a coach specializing in retirement.

"The plan for couples shouldn't be written in stone--it's more like a financial portfolio that you will come back to and revise over time," she says. "Things can change--your health, your finances, or your interests."

Mintzer recommends a somewhat different process.

"Sit down alone and think about how you want to live life in this next phase. How much work do you want to do? What are your interests? What gives you pleasure? What do you want to do by yourself, and how much with your partner? Really let yourself brainstorm and generate a list. Encourage your partner to do the same, and then sit down together and compare the lists. You’ll see what things you want to do together, and what you don't--and that can be a good starting point for negotiation and discussion."

Mark Miller is a journalist and author who writes about trends in retirement and aging. He is a columnist for Reuters and also contributes to WealthManagement.com and the AARP magazine. He publishes a weekly newsletter on news and trends in the field at https://retirementrevised.com/enewsletter/. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of Morningstar.com.