When couples have different attitudes about aging

Retirement columnist Glenn Ruffenach also answers questions on IRAs and Medicare.

  • By Glenn Ruffenach,
  • The Wall Street Journal
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Q: I would like to see you address one of the big problems couples face in retirement: They may have conflicting attitudes toward aging. Some of us try to focus on the positive parts of later life, but some of us get wrapped up in the negatives. Have you talked with retirees about this? How do couples deal with this?

A: It’s an important and, often, unsettling task: coming to grips with the consequences of aging. My wife and I, for instance, have been talking in recent months about our energy levels, which seem to be falling. I worry this is a sure sign, and not a good one, that we’re getting older—that we’re “giving in” to aging. My wife replies that we’re simply learning to pace ourselves in retirement after several high-speed years. (Which, I admit, is a good argument.)

For better or worse, my wife and I have lots of company, says Maryanne Vandervelde, a psychologist and author of “Retirement for Two,” a couple’s guide to later life. Spouses, Dr. Vandervelde says, frequently can be poles apart when approaching and trying to manage aging—everything from wrinkles, to changes in one’s health, to thoughts about mortality.

One spouse, for instance, might become fixated on keeping a youthful appearance in retirement and spend a small fortune on cosmetic surgery or certain types of food, while the other comes to regard such expenditures as a waste. Or one spouse might become consumed with regret as he or she ages, while the other finds more value in life.

How to deal with this? To start, as my colleague Anne Tergesen has written in these pages, older adults who focus primarily on the downsides of aging need to recognize that they are doing themselves more harm than they might imagine. Researchers are finding that if we think about getting older primarily in terms of decline or disability, our health likely will suffer. Conversely, if we tend to view aging in terms of opportunity and growth, our bodies respond in kind.

One way spouses can anticipate these issues, according to Dr. Vandervelde, is to ask each other several pointed questions early in retirement about aging and its consequences. Among them: What is your attitude toward aging—denial, facing it squarely, or ruminating about it endlessly? How do you feel about plastic surgery—for yourself and me? What are you doing to strengthen your mental health, and/or what should we be doing together?

Perhaps most important, spouses should have a sense of humor about getting older—and practice forgiveness, Dr. Vandervelde says.

“Forgiveness may not come easily after many years of disappointments or old grudges within a relationship,” she says. “We also get more set in our ways as we age. But ‘practice makes perfect’ applies to forgiveness. Our partner’s reaction to our forgiveness is usually positive, so forgiveness is then reinforced as a behavioral skill.”

“Ask each other: What are you grateful for?” she adds. “Sometimes, it takes getting to retirement age to really appreciate what you have.”

Q: You recently wrote that legislation in Congress could spell the end of the “stretch” individual retirement account. Would this apply to Roth IRAs, as well?

A: Yes, the legislation applies to all inherited retirement accounts, including Roth IRAs. But a Roth would retain its unique tax advantage.

To recap: The Secure Act, which the House approved in May, would effectively end the so-called stretch IRA for many heirs. Under current rules, a parent, for instance, could leave his or her IRA to a daughter or son who, after the parent’s death, could set up an inherited IRA and withdraw funds from the account over her or his lifetime.

The Secure Act, however, would change that process dramatically. Under the House bill, an individual who inherits a tax-advantaged retirement account, including a Roth IRA, after Dec. 31, 2019, would be required to withdraw all the money within a decade of the original account holder’s death and pay any taxes due.

(That said, the legislation does exempt certain “eligible designated beneficiaries” from the 10-year rule, notes Ed Slott, an IRA expert in Rockville Centre, N.Y., including a surviving spouse and minor children, but not grandchildren.)

Withdrawals from a Roth IRA, of course, are generally tax-free. And the Secure Act doesn’t change that. Even though the holder of an inherited Roth IRA would be forced to empty the account in 10 years, those distributions wouldn’t be taxable.

The legislation, at this writing, is tied up in the Senate. As we noted last month: Stay tuned.

Q: I plan to retire next year and enroll in traditional Medicare. What will my premiums be? I’m trying to put together a budget for retirement.

A: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services hasn’t published premiums for next year. (That will likely happen in the fall.) But the figures for 2019 are a good starting point.

For most beneficiaries, Medicare Part A, which covers hospital bills, is free; there is no monthly premium. But there is an annual deductible if you’re admitted to a hospital: currently, $1,364. Premiums for Medicare Part B, which covers doctors’ fees and other expenses, are tied to your income. This year, most new beneficiaries will pay $135.50 a month for Part B. That figure, though, begins to increase (and eventually tops off at more than $400 a month) for individual taxpayers who earn more than $85,000 annually and couples who earn more than $170,000. The current annual deductible for Part B is $185.

Chances are good you also will need, first, Medicare Supplement Insurance, better known as Medigap, which is offered by private insurers and will help pay bills that Medicare doesn’t cover, and second, a prescription-drug plan, also known as Medicare Part D. The average monthly premium for the latter is about $40, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that specializes in health-policy analysis.

As for Medigap, you’ll have to do some homework. That’s because premiums vary considerably by the amount of coverage and insurer you select. (Typically, the more benefits, the larger the monthly premium.) You can quickly see what various Medigap plans cost in your area by using a Medicare search tool. Go to: medicare.gov/find-a-plan/questions/medigap-home.aspx.

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