How to Navigate May-December Marriages at Retirement Time

When one spouse is older than the other, retirement plans can get complicated.

A couple cuddling on the beach.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

When Mike Jay, 61, first met and fell in love with his wife Jenny 12 years ago, they were at similar stages in life: divorced, raising kids and building careers. She was 10 years younger, but it didn’t seem much of a difference. Now that retirement is around the corner, the age gap looms larger.

Ideally, Mike would like to retire around age 67. He wants to travel, go diving in the Caribbean and enjoy leisure while he’s physically fit enough to engage in an active lifestyle. But at 51, Jenny feels her career as a writer is just taking off.

“I’m concerned and worried that we’re not on the same page,” says Mike, an applications engineer in central Wisconsin. 

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Couples with a significant difference in their ages — 8 or 10 years or more — are likely to find themselves at odds when they’re on the cusp of the retirement decision, and then throughout their golden years. Looking at first-time marriages, 14% involve a gap of 6 years or more and 5% have a gap of 10 years or more, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data. By contrast, 20% of second-time marriages such as the Jays are between couples 10 years apart or more. In the vast majority of marriages, the woman is younger than the man, globally and in the U.S.

But these mismatches don’t have to derail your marriage — or your financial and health care security — in retirement. By talking through the differences, planning carefully and committing to a flexible approach, experts say, you can ensure both spouses achieve their dreams and enjoy retirement, while tending to the marriage and each other.

“As we move from late middle age to old age, we experience predictable but important life events,” says Stephen Golant, a gerontology professor at the University of Florida. “When the two partners are 10 or more years apart, there’s a greater risk that the two will interpret events differently and want to cope differently.”

Talk it out 

The most important first step is to communicate honestly about how each of you envisions retirement, where you want to live, when you want to phase down and end work, and what your dream lifestyle is. “Be honest with what you actually want for yourself,” says Diana Yáñez, a wealth adviser at Strategy Squad in Orinda, Calif. “It's okay for couples to have different desires, but the more honest that you are, the easier it is to come to a middle ground.”

Once the issues are on the table, compromises will present themselves. If you want to retire sooner to travel and pursue hobbies, but your spouse plans to work much longer, you might decide to travel more together while the spouse is still working. That’s what Cynthia Kemp, a 50-year old educator in Seattle, plans to do when her 61-year-old husband retires in about five years. “As a teacher, I have summers off; I have more breaks,” she says. “We’re ready to travel.”

On the other side of the spectrum, if your spouse is already long retired and no longer interested in frequent trips, perhaps you can find a group of friends for travel and outings. “Sometimes the younger spouse has a group of girlfriends, so she can get the bug out of her system by going on a girls trip,” says Maria Castillo Dominguez, lead financial planner for Inspired Financial in Huntington Beach, Calif. 

If one person retires while the other one is working, the retiree should find something that gives him purpose, whether a part-time job, consulting, or meaningful volunteer work, says longevity expert Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones book series on living longer. “The relationship comes under a lot of pressure when one is coming home every day enthused about their work and the other one is watching reruns of ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ ” he says. 

Save more

The reality is that in a large age gap marriage, the younger spouse likely hasn’t saved as much of a nest egg. And yet, “it’s very typical that the older person wants to retire and enjoy the final stages of life together,” says Castillo Dominguez. 

The years leading up to retirement are a key time to accumulate as much as possible for the couple. Pare back expenses, pay down debt and put extra funds into retirement accounts. If your home needs maintenance or remodeling, take care of it while you still have two incomes. 

“For clients who want to retire at the same time, they need more money to retire on,” explains Jim White of Great Oak Wealth Management in Pottstown, Pa. “Chances are the younger spouse will be living by themselves at a certain point and have to cover their expenses longer.”

If the younger spouse retires before qualifying for Medicare, the couple will shoulder the additional cost — $10,000 to $12,000 a year — for private health insurance. The older spouse should purchase long-term care insurance, if possible, in order to avoid draining the younger spouse’s retirement fund during a long illness or period of infirmity. 

Plan distributions

With an age gap relationship, it’s crucial to anticipate your required minimum distributions (RMDs) from retirement funds and be intentional about when to claim Social Security. You may be able to minimize your tax burden by strategically taking funds from certain accounts when you’re in a lower tax bracket. 

“With that age difference, couples hit different RMD thresholds at different times. So that can lead to a variety of different consequences, such as potentially pushing them into a higher tax bracket,” says Matthew Wang, a private wealth manager for Merrill Lynch in New York City.

To stretch the older spouse’s nest egg further, you’re allowed to calculate RMDs using a different Internal Revenue Service table — Table II: the Joint Life and Last Survivor Expectancy Table — as long as your spouse is your beneficiary and at least 10 years younger. 

White advises the older spouse to wait until age 70 to claim Social Security, so that monthly payments will be larger for them — and potentially their spouse, who can claim survivor benefits after their death.

Similarly, if the older spouse has a defined benefit pension, it’s generally best to claim the joint and survivor option so that the younger spouse can draw pension payments for the full extent of her life, Yanaz says.

Many couples in age gap relationships have children from a prior relationship, as the Jays do. They might consider an investment vehicle called a qualified terminable interest property, Wang says. That provides lifetime income for the surviving spouse, but any principal left after that person’s death doesn’t go into the longer-living spouse’s estate — it is distributed according to the original retirement fund owner’s wishes, whether to children or another beneficiary.

Be flexible 

As with all planning, revisit your plan annually to be sure it still reflects your values and needs, Yanaz says. “People change,” she says. “Maybe before grandchildren you have one idea and then after grandchildren, you have a different idea.”

When envisioning your retirement lifestyle, plan for maintaining the important relationships in your life, whether with friends, your own aging parents or with children and grandchildren. That could mean retiring in the same geographic area as those people. Or, it could mean budgeting for regular trips to far-flung family members.  

Bring lightness and humor to the hard topics — what some advisers call the “morbid math” of retirement planning — such as the younger spouse becoming a caregiver or the older spouse dying. “Those are uncomfortable conversations, but they’re necessary,” says California financial planner Castillo Dominguez. If the younger spouse is a woman, which is the majority of cases, she’ll likely outlive her husband with the combination of being younger and women’s longer life expectancies. 

It’s also important to be frank about changing interest in and ability to engage in active hobbies, and be open to doing these activities separately. Otherwise, “the lifestyle of the woman is going to be crimped to some extent,” the University of Florida’s Golant says. “She’s used to doing all kinds of things with her spouse, and suddenly he’s less able to do these kinds of recreational leisure things.” 

In addition to developing friendships with other people who can engage in more active sports and physically strenuous activities, the couple should cultivate lifelong pastimes that they both enjoy. Author Dan Buettner plays cards with his younger girlfriend. A daily walk together gives you 90% of the benefit from any exercise program, while being kinder to joints and stimulating to your cognitive abilities. “That’s a time where you check in with each other every day,” he says.

The younger partner will likely also do more caregiving, possibly going from caring for minor children to caring for aging parents and then immediately caring for an infirm spouse. “At every point going forward in the rest of their lives, she’s likely to be more burdened with the caregiving responsibilities,” says Golant.

For Cynthia Kemp in Seattle, the morbid math wasn’t a deal breaker when she originally met her husband: “I will probably outlive him. Statistically, women outlive men. I went into it knowing that was probably going to happen.” 

Note: This item first appeared in Kiplinger’s Retirement Report, our popular monthly periodical that covers key concerns of affluent older Americans who are retired or preparing for retirement. Subscribe for retirement advice  that’s right on the money.

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Contributing Writer, -

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning journalist, speaker and author of The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever – And What to Do About It. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Fortune, Medium, Mother Jones, The New York Times, Parents, Slate, USA Today, The Washington Post and Working Mother, among others. She's been an EWA Education Reporting Fellow, Fund for Investigative Journalism fellow and Logan Nonfiction Fellow at the Carey Institute for Global Good. Residencies include the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Ragdale. A Harvard physics graduate, Katherine previously worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse and Bloomberg News, covering everything from financial and media policy to the White House.