Should Married Couples Retire at the Same Time | Brighthouse Financial
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  • 6-Minute Article
  • |
  • May 03, 2019

Should Married Couples Retire at the Same Time?

Coordinating retirements as a couple comes down to a few key factors.

Retired couple sitting on sofa featured in an article about retiring married couples

Created in Collaboration with Kiplinger.

About half of spouses tend to retire around the same time—or at least within two years of each other.1 But is retiring together always the best plan? Or could staggering retirement dates make more sense?

These are vital questions to ask, because timing is an important and multifaceted part of a successful life in retirement. After all, couples need to consider how the decision to leave full-time careers will affect income, health benefits, lifestyle, and personal goals for both spouses.

For Debbie Averbook of Florida, retiring from her job as a hospital patient advocate soon after her husband closed his retail business in 2015 made sense. Together, they babysit the grandkids, enjoy time with friends, and are active in their synagogue. Day-to-day, however, they also make time to focus on pursuing their own passions.

“There’s no right or wrong way to retire,” Averbook says. “I think a lot of it depends on being ready, your communication with each other, and how you’ve functioned as a couple your whole lives.”

To help guide retirement timing, you’ll want to consider a few key factors. More often than not, successful coordination is a function of seeing how all these puzzle pieces fit together for you.

The Financial Piece

It’s a pivotal question that all pre-retirees should answer: Do we have enough saved to last and provide the retirement we want?

Starting at least five years before their expected retirement dates, couples can work with a financial professional to calculate their unique “number.” This is the monthly amount, net of taxes, a couple needs to live the lifestyle they’ve worked so hard to achieve, says Robert Karn, a wealth manager in Connecticut.

Once a portfolio is poised to provide this number, a joint exit becomes feasible. “Most couples want to retire together,” he says. “They all want to have fun, but they can’t travel together if Steve is still working and Joan is not.”

Every couple’s target number differs, of course, once all the variables are examined. But it’s important to do the math to better inform your decision-making. For example: With annual spending for those age 65 to 74 now averaging more than $55,000, retiring at 65 versus 70 means at least an additional $275,000 in after-tax income must be generated from a combination of Social Security, pension (if any), guaranteed income solutions, and personal savings.2

Key point: The earlier couples begin analyzing potential income and expenses, the more time they have to address any gaps in their financial plan.

The Benefits Piece

Spousal health insurance benefits also can influence how couples decide to time their retirements. Those with employer-provided health insurance, for instance, are more likely to work until age 65 when Medicare kicks in.3

But if one spouse is considerably younger than the other, that can be a big factor in deciding whether to retire together or separately.

Let’s say, for example, that the older spouse carries the couple’s healthcare coverage through work. Maintaining coverage for both partners as they age may mean choosing one of these options:

  • The older spouse delays retirement until the younger spouse turns 65 and is eligible for Medicare.
  • The younger spouse enrolls in their employer’s retiree health insurance plan, if such a benefit is available.
  • The younger spouse opts for an individual health insurance plan.
  • The younger spouse seeks employment with employer-sponsored health insurance benefits.
  • COBRA is used to temporarily extend employer health coverage for the younger spouse. For qualifying employers, it allows spouse and dependent coverage at full cost for up to 18 months after leaving a job.

Social Security is part of the decision, too. That’s because waiting to claim benefits until after full retirement age (66 to 67, depending on when you were born) will increase monthly payments by about 8% per year, up to age 70. (You're eligible to file for Social Security as early as age 62, but benefits will be permanently reduced.) To maximize their benefits, many married couples claim benefits for one spouse at full retirement age but delay the other spouse’s claim, which allows that second benefit to grow.

Age differences can play a big role here as well. One recent study found that women in heterosexual couples typically marry men two or three years older. As a result, they often leave the workforce at younger ages, so they can retire at the same time as a partner. But this decision comes at a cost: Married women sacrifice more Social Security wealth than married men when they retire early.4

The upshot: Married couples with big age differences may need to consider planning for different retirement dates — and weigh the impact of this scenario on key benefits and retirement-portfolio strategies.

The Emotional Piece

Each person likely has his or her own vision of retirement. And while many partners’ hopes and expectations may be in sync, sometimes they’re not always compatible, notes Sara Zeff Geber, Ph.D., a certified retirement coach and organizational psychologist in California.

“If one person says, ‘My work isn’t giving my life meaning and purpose; I’m done,’ but the other one says, ‘I’m really invested in my work and love it,’ they shouldn’t retire at the same time,” Geber explains.

Some couples may be ready at the same time, but have differing lifestyle expectations. “The most common mistake I see people making is not talking to their spouse about what retirement should look like,” she says. This lack of communication often leads to some erroneous assumptions about everything from where you’ll live to what your roles will be to how much time you’ll spend together.

To make sure both of you are on the same page, it’s helpful to talk about balancing each other’s views early and often, Geber adds. The idea is to pinpoint and address any conflicts before you retire.

Planning for Change

When choosing whether to retire together or separately, also think about how feelings and circumstances may change in the future. A couple who chooses to stagger their retirements now may regret that decision later when one partner’s failing health keeps them from checking destinations off a travel bucket list. Another couple may enjoy more time together early on but miss the additional savings later.

Bottom line: Many couples choose to begin their journey into retirement together, but there are several points to consider as that decision comes into view. Talk with your financial professional about these issues, so you’re better prepared to make a decision that’s right for both of you.

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