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'Gap Retirements' Divide Baby Boomer Couples

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The retirement income levels for American are improving moderately but steadily from last year, according to data from the Employee Benefits Research Institute, but problems persist for millions of retirees and near-retirees.

One often-overlooked problem is what to do when only one spouse retires, which can mean a substantial hit on combined income and having to put off plans to travel, move or start a business -- or even live -- together.

Howard Hook, a certified financial planner with EKS Associates in Princeton, N.J., calls the retirement gap a "predicament for an increasing number of baby boomers."

"It's a scenario that we're seeing more and more frequently, both with people who have decided it's time to retire and those who get laid off and can't get back into the workforce," Hook says. "There are no easy answers, but as financial advisers we try to help them determine how best to go from here to there."

Hooks says gap couples need to brace themselves for emotional issues related to "one at home, the other at work" situation, such as the likely change in roles when one spouse is out of the workforce and the other at home "potentially waiting for dinner to appear on the table."

How the retirement gap situation came to pass can also have an impact. "Clearly, there is a difference between someone who is forced to retire and someone who has planned it," Hooks says.

In virtually all cases, Hook says, he's working with couples that face a severe decline in income and a potentially big reduction in lifestyle levels.

"We go through the process of helping them visualize an income timeline that shows when sources of income will stop and start and what their necessary and discretionary expenses will be," he says.  "We walk them through the 'math' -- the benefits of taking social security now or waiting, taking money out of their retirement portfolio, sizing down their living situation or recommending the retired spouse find a part-time job, and putting them on a 'soft' budget."

"From a financial perspective, it's always better when you've had the time to put a financial plan together," he says. "Yet, emotionally it may be much easier for the spouse who is still working if the other loses their job than if they say, 'I'm going to play golf' or 'I want to spend more time in Florida.'"

Hooks says there can often be resentment in the latter scenario, because while family income is dropping, one spouse seems to be choosing to go on permanent vacation.


"We're not just dealing with financial numbers," he says. "Yes, you run the financial numbers, but you also try to get a sense of what the emotional feelings are." 

Hooks says that very often his quarterly meetings with clients are the first time that a retirement gap issue pops up. "Spouses use our meeting as an excuse to bring this up when they didn't want to bring it up directly to the spouse, hoping that someone won't judge them and can give them a professional answer," he says. "This happens more times than you would think."

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