Married couples typically can reap the benefits of combined incomes to help build their retirement savings. When both are aligned in their investment strategies, it can be a powerful force. Disagreements about financial goals and spending habits, however, can potentially jeopardize their retirement savings (and their relationship). Perhaps that’s why finances are often cited as one of the main reasons for divorce.1
Those who are single can make financial decisions autonomously, allowing them a greater sense of control over their retirement outcome. But the obstacles they face as they age may pose unique financial risks compared to someone who is married.
As every advisor knows, investment and estate planning strategies need to be tailored for each client, and the following considerations for married couples vs. single clients will likely need to be part of the planning process.
Some Principles Remain Unchanged
Before we get into what’s different, let’s review financial principles that typically remain constant whether someone is married or single. Most investors still should:
- Determine risk tolerance and establish an emergency fund
- Invest early and take advantage of compounding interest
- Participate in employer-sponsored 401(k) plans
- Diversify portfolios to potentially minimize risk
- Evaluate spending and calculate how much is needed in retirement to maintain an acceptable standard of living
- Live within means and avoid or reduce debt
- Invest with long-term goals in mind and not chase after returns
- Establish how assets will be distributed as part of an estate plan
While these foundational investment principles generally apply to most clients, there are nuances within each that may impact results based on their marital status. Let’s take a look.
Couples may experience more significant ebbs and flows in their income than single investors do. Leading up to retirement, a couple may bring in two incomes and then see that income drop once each claims Social Security. Depending on any investments between the two, that income can fluctuate when one or the other or both begin taking withdrawals. When one spouse dies, benefits and income will shift yet again and, if the spouse who passed away was the primary breadwinner and received a pension, that income may disappear altogether.
Single individuals typically have fewer of these types of income fluctuations to worry about and may be able to better calculate how much income they can expect in retirement. In either regard, a guaranteed income stream can help mitigate uncertainties and minimize the risks of running out of money.
With twice the earning power, it’s easy to presume that a married couple will spend more than someone who’s single. But that may not be the case if that single person is also a single parent.
Not only is there a financial impact of divorce, but becoming a solo parent can create a significant financial disadvantage that may be difficult to overcome as the years go by. This is evidenced by nearly one in four solo parents living below the poverty line and as many living with a parent to help make ends meet.2
Couples aren’t without risks, however. Many advisors know the reality of seeing some clients spend more than they should or give in to the demands of entitled children. Both may threaten a couple’s retirement.
Of course, spending in retirement for a married couple may drop significantly if a spouse dies. An area to consider for a surviving spouse is the potential tax burden created when having to file as a single status rather than filing jointly. A single person obviously doesn’t need to account for such a change.
Long-term Care and Disability
Once someone reaches age 65 and is enrolled in Medicare, it may cover some expenses up to a point. However, there are limits on Medicare coverage and most policies won’t pay for long-term hospital stays or nursing home care.3
While it may be wise for clients of any marital status to consider long-term care or disability insurance, it’s especially relevant for single retirees. A single person doesn’t have a spouse’s income or physical aid to rely on in the event they become incapacitated or are diagnosed with a disabling chronic condition.
Married couples may also benefit from coverage, so be sure to discuss the options. Among them are long-term care policies containing a shared benefit rider which allows them to pool their benefits (e.g., if a policy has a total of six years of coverage, one spouse can use two and the other will still have four years left).4
While a critical step for all investors, estate planning for singles is a critical move to help ensure their assets are distributed according to their wishes upon their death. With no surviving spouse to transfer those assets to, it may be left up to the courts to determine where those assets go. Another consideration is setting up a trust and assigning a trustee to handle financial decisions in the event of a person’s death or if the person becomes unable to take care of themselves.
Of course, a married couple must also consider how they want their assets distributed and have similar considerations. With some couples being part of a blended family, an estate plan becomes even more important. If a will or trust isn’t updated from a previous marriage, it may cause disputes and distribution delays as a result of an ex-spouse or even estranged children feeling entitled to an inheritance despite wishes to the contrary.
Start conversations with your clients to help them understand the unique opportunities and risks they may face. No matter their life circumstance, you can be there to guide them in forming a retirement strategy to achieve their goals.
Be sure to access our complimentary guide below to further help explore clients’ motivations surrounding finances and investment decisions.
Written by: Marshall Heitzman, CFP®, ChFC, FLMI, CPCU, BFA™
Marshall is CUNA Mutual Group's Advanced Planning Expert and has more than 25 years experience in the insurance and financial services industry. He consults Financial Advisors on advanced retirement planning concepts for retirement and wealth management clients.
1marriage.com, 10 Most Common Reasons for Divorce, October 31, 2019
2Pew Research Center, The Changing Profile of Unmarried Parents, April 25, 2018.
3medicare.gov, Health care and prescriptions in a nursing home, No date
4Kiplinger, How Couples Can Share Long-Term-Care Benefits, June 15, 2018