Remember The Newlywed Game? The premise of the long-running TV show was simple: Pose questions to recently joined couples about their relationship. The twist: Spouses had to respond without knowing how the other had answered.
Because the marriages had just begun, the responses were uncertain. Answers that agreed spurred celebrations. Answers that differed – sometimes widely – prompted surprise, chagrin and even dismay.
Viewers watched to see how well a couple starting their life together really knew one another. And while it was played for laughs, at the game’s end, the future did seem brighter for partners who shared mutual perceptions and expectations.
Managing a similar dynamic is a challenge financial professionals face with couples starting another new stage together – namely, retired life.
Who Has the Remote?
Advisors often work with clients as couples. In doing so, it’s important to be mindful that while husbands and wives become one in marriage, they remain individuals as well.
That’s not always readily apparent. Although one partner may manage the household finances with scant input from the other, when both spouses are seated together with you to discuss retirement scenarios, they may paint a broad-brushed vision of their post-work life. On the surface it may seem unified. But it may be more different than even they realize.
When you get down to the details, the fine-tipped brush version emerges. Each spouse brings personal thoughts, ideas and dreams to what retirement should hold. And not all those thoughts, ideas and dreams may even be fully articulated. That is why a measure of separate interaction, probing personal insights expressed free of the other partner’s influence, is so essential. Some couples jointly gloss over areas of disagreement. It is the advisor’s job to understand this and help a “client couple” plan in the way that is best for both of them – separately and together.
The Same, but Different
Both partners likely will profess the same ultimate goal: to retire comfortably. The question is, do they share a common understanding of what that really means? Have they really discussed it in depth? Do they know what retirement will look like, where it will be or even when it will be?
For instance, a couple may agree in general that they want more time to better connect with people in retirement. However, to one spouse that can mean traveling to visit family and friends as well as making acquaintances in new places. But the other may view it as the couple staying near home, reaching out to family and friends through social media while immersing themselves in local community activities and causes. Both of these scenarios are worthy pursuits, but ones that may be at odds.
More fundamentally, a client couple may not even agree on their respective retirement dates or ages. Or they may not agree on how much preparation for retirement each one believes is necessary. And they also may not agree what all this may mean to their individual retirement plans, individual Social Security claiming decisions and a host of other retirement factors.
Divide and Conquer
To bring clarity and specificity to a client couple’s retirement planning, it helps to work with the partners separately for a portion of the time. Private fact-finding apart from one another fosters candid sharing of outlooks and opinions. Individual planning opportunities with each spouse facilitate this.
This simply can be meeting with each at a different time. Or, if they’re together, it could mean having them complete your preferred retirement planning fact finder or program separately to document their responses individually. If that’s the situation, put them in separate areas as they complete it. The objective is to capture baseline knowledge of what really matters most to each partner, free of the other’s influence.
Doing this will help them compare and contrast their retirement feelings and allow you to understand similarities – and more important, differences – that can be addressed in the planning process. Some of the items that must be covered in this process include:
Individually, what elements do they foresee for their preferred retirement lifestyle? What activities? What pursuits? What desired standard of living?
How prepared do they feel for retirement? One partner may believe the couple is basically well-prepared. The other may feel much remains to be done.
Will “retirement” mean stopping work entirely or perhaps continuing some part-time employment?
Do they agree what risks in retirement most concern them? Inflation? Longevity? Volatility? Liquidity? Health care?
Do they agree on how they will pay for expenses in retirement?
When does each intend to start taking Social Security payouts?
When does each plan to tap other retirement income sources? Which sources and in what order?
Help Client Couples Tune In to the Same Channel
Because much of this process centers on personal views and preferences, you may want to begin with a consultative approach that defers any discussion of specific plans and detailed provisions. One such method is to pose questions about how clients see themselves in retirement and probe their assessment of preparedness. After capturing individual snapshots of each spouse’s retirement outlook, in subsequent joint planning you can then conduct follow-up joint planning that can help the couple paint the big picture that integrates and aligns their ambitions.
Ultimately, this is all about initiating independent discussions, finding differences and helping couples speak a common retirement language to address those differences. LIMRA research identifies getting clients to articulate their vision of retirement as one of a financial professional’s greatest challenges. A structured, interactive process that helps users visualize personal preferences fosters more information to be shared, understood and addressed.
Marital discord is no game. A couple’s transition into a life lacking the structure of work and careers can be stressful in its own right. If there are points of surprise, chagrin and even dismay regarding retirement plans and ambitions, it is better to identify them sooner rather than later. So see where their expectations and preferences mesh. Discuss where they differ. Then work with client couples to address their needs consultatively with the products and services that make the best sense for them individually and together.
Finally, remember that retirement goals and circumstances change over time, so it will be beneficial for a couple to complete this process every few years.
Sustaining a mutually fulfilling post-employment life helps determine the satisfaction of what is a decades-long period for many couples. Begin by collecting frank individual perspectives, then work to convey, integrate and reconcile them in solutions that value each partner’s needs and goals. Ultimately, a clearer, more cohesive retirement picture promotes a couple’s overall relationship and helps to guide the advisor in serving them for years to come.