By Linda Stern
NEW YORK, Oct 9 (Reuters) - Statisticians have noted a rise in "gray divorces" lately. Spouses who stayed together through decades of sickness, health, richness, poorness, child rearing and parental health troubles are breaking up, just as they are supposed to be entering their own happy golden years.
No doubt some have unhappily "stayed together for the kids," but something else is at play here. Spouses who have compromised for years see retirement as a last chance to do what they want.
So when he wants to move to a small (lawn-free) retirement home and she wants to stay in the big (near the kids) family house, or she wants to travel and he wants to putter, sparks fly.
"I tend to be the mediator at times with those couples," says Jacob Gold, a financial adviser with ING U.S. Financial Partners in Scottsdale, Arizona, who specializes in retirement counseling.
It is a common story, according to research from Fidelity Investments, which found that 4 in 10 couples who aren't retired disagree about the lifestyle they expect in retirement. More than a third don't agree on where to live or have no idea where they want to live. One-third disagree about whether they will continue to work in retirement, according to a Fidelity survey released at the end of September.
Not every disagreement will break up a marriage, of course. One partner works a couple of extra years while the other one doesn't - happens all the time. But how can you solve differences that run deeper, short of a retirement trip to Reno for a quickie divorce? Here are some thoughts.
- Get on the same financial page. Even if one partner handles the investments, both should know exactly how much they can afford in retirement, says Kathy Murphy, president of Fidelity Personal Investing. It will help frame the discussion. (To get started, you can take a couples financial quiz on the Fidelity website,.)
- Collaborate. Many financial advisers insist on meeting both spouses rather than doing retirement planning with one or the other. That gives couples a clear understanding of where they are, as well as an impartial sounding board for their differing views.
- Then talk about dreams. Put the budget aside, and talk about what you'd really like to do for the rest of your lives. You can whittle down your ambitions later to match your bank account. But at least know that one person wants to ride horses in Montana while the other feels life won't be complete without some Caribbean sailing.
- After the dream talk, figure out the details. Maybe she doesn't need to live in Montana, and he doesn't need to own a big boat. They can spend one month a year in each place. One solution advisers sometimes recommend: Sell the big house and get two more modest places in different locations.
- Talk about togetherness. Couples often have very different ideas about how to spend their days. Murphy says it is common for men to want to immerse themselves in sports and athletics while women want to spend time with family, volunteer in the community or pursue hobbies.
That's not a problem for most couples, who are used to spending their days apart. ("I married you for breakfast and dinner but not for lunch" is an old retiree punch line.)
But if one spouse thinks retirement means spending days with the spouse he or she has missed all these years, it can be a problem. "We can see the time they have together could create a wedge," says Gold. That can be particularly acute as one spouse or the other transitions from full-time work. Discuss, be realistic and compromise, he says.
- Compromise sequentially. Baby boomers are increasingly exploring the concept of a phased retirement. Those folks heading to Belize or buying recreational vehicles don't all expect to live that way forever. Perhaps you can structure a "we'll do this for two years, and then we'll do that for two years" agreement.
- Try a new activity. You and your spouse got together in the first place because you enjoyed each other's company. Maybe one of you loves tennis and the other loves woodworking. You can agree to give each other space for those activities and pick a third - bridge, say, or birdwatching - that you haven't done, and learn it together.
- Talk about the end of retirement. Gold notes that he often sees couples disagree about how to handle their estates - one wants to die spending the last penny, the other wants to leave a bequest. He tells people their priority should be to ensure a comfortable retirement and then earmark dollars to pass on. If they can't agree on the line between "comfortable" and "save for the kids," he sometimes tells them to buy a second-to-die life insurance policy that will pay off to the estate when the second spouse passes. That won't come cheap, but if it saves you from a marital spat, it could be as worthwhile as the cleaning service that kept the household peace during your working years.