February 26, 2019 Retirement

It Takes Two: Planning for Retirement as a Couple

By Ida Abbott

Whether you approach the idea of retirement with eagerness or dread, you are facing a major life transition. Leaving a career and embarking on whatever you decide to do next changes how you spend your days, who you interact with, and your overall engagement with the world around you. If you are married or have a life partner, the process is more complicated because these changes will affect both of you. And depending on your ages, you may be looking at 20 or 30 more years together.

Having a strong and loving relationship with a spouse or partner can be a source of support, comfort, and joy during this time. When you are in sync with each other and share a common vision of what retirement will look like, having a partner at your side makes it easier. But if you fail to communicate with each other in advance about your mutual desires and expectations, you may soon find that you and your spouse have very different visions for the future. At best, you may simply have to smooth out those differences as you go along. At worst, those differences may escalate into disaffection, conflict, or separation. The tensions that surface in retirement have contributed to what has been called “gray divorce,” which refers to the increase in divorce among baby boomers. Since the 1990s, the divorce rate has doubled for people over age 50 and tripled for people 65 and older.

The best way to anticipate, manage, and resolve any differences is to start planning early as a couple. The sooner you talk about how you each envision the future, the sooner you can deal with any disagreements that surface. Yet more people plan for a 2-week vacation than for retirement. You can’t plan for everything, and of course, things will change. But it is important to talk at the outset about what you want post-career life to be like, both in the first few weeks and down the road. Making sure your understanding and expectations are aligned early in the transition process will help smooth the way over the long term.

Here are some questions to consider when you start to discuss retirement.

  • Who is retiring? If both of you are still working, will you retire at the same time? Or will one of you retire earlier? If only one will retire now (or soon), how much longer will the other one continue to work?
  • If one of you has been home-based (i.e., because you work from a home office, are a homemaker, have not held an outside job, or have already retired), how will the other’s retirement affect your daily routine? If you are not accustomed to being together all day every day, how much “togetherness” do you want and expect? Will the new retiree be independent, active, and out of the house much of the time? Or will he/she expect you to be available at home and attentive to their needs? To what extent will the new retiree’s presence at home interfere with your usual schedule? If you work from home, will the new retiree’s presence interrupt the privacy you need and are used to?
  • Where will you live? Will you stay in your home or move? Will you stay in the same community or relocate to another? Where would you move?
  • What will you both do with your time? What hobbies and activities do each of you enjoy? Which of these hobbies and activities will you do together and which separately? How many fixed commitments (e.g., board positions, mentoring obligations, leadership roles) will each of you accept? Will one or both of you work in some capacity, either for pay or as a volunteer? How will you accommodate each other’s interests, activities, and commitments?
  • Will you travel? Where, when, and how often will you go? What method of travel do you prefer: luxury, rustic, or adventure? By air, cruise ship, bicycle, or RV? Alone, with friends, or with a tour group?
  • How busy a social life would you like—and what will it consist of? Do you each have friends that you like to socialize with? Do you like socializing with each other’s friends?
  • When you leave the workplace, many of your work relationships wane or vanish. As you age, many of your friends move away and pass away. How will you maintain existing friendships and social networks and develop new ones?
  • If you have grandchildren, how much time will you spend with them? What do your children and grandchildren want or expect from you in terms of time and support?
  • Are you both fully informed about your investments, insurance, retirement accounts, and general financial status? If you have separate investments and accounts, how will they be handled? If one or both of you has alimony, child support, or other monetary obligations due to previous divorces, how will retirement impact those? Are you agreed on what you can afford and how much you will be able to spend on the lifestyle you hope to enjoy?

Having a conversation about these issues is not a one-time event; it should be an ongoing process. Retirement transitions take months or even years; once you do retire, the reality of retirement may not be what you imagined; and events that you cannot predict or control may force you to shift direction. It is a good idea to revisit these questions from time to time. Probing these issues openly and honestly will help you adapt and make new plans when your attitudes, desires, or circumstances change. Regularly harmonizing your vision for the future will enrich both your retirement and your relationship.


    Ida Abbott, a consultant, author, and speaker who specializes in lawyers’ career development advises law firms about retirement processes and works with senior lawyers as a retirement mentor and coach. For her contributions to the legal profession, she has been elected a Fellow of both the American Bar Foundation and the College of Law Practice Management. Her most recent book is The Lawyer’s Guide to Mentoring, 2nd Edition (NALP, 2018). Learn more about her services at IdaAbbott.com.