Personal Finance

For aging singles, here's how to plan for your golden years

Key Points
  • About 35.4 million Americans lived alone in 2016. Of them, 19.5 million were age 65 or older.
  • Estate planning and long-term care are two aspects of retirement that can take on more importance for older singles.
  • Advisors say it's also important to keep your social network strong, whether through friendships, working or volunteering.

For many older singles, there’s something far more pressing on their minds than putting a ring on it: financial security.

People with a partner or spouse generally have someone helping out with expenses, as well as a built-in caregiver to lean on. For those who are single and childless, that lack of a default support system poses additional challenges as they age.

“It’s scarier and lonelier for them,” said certified financial planner Kristi Sullivan, owner of Sullivan Financial Planning in Denver. “When I meet with people without kids or spouses, they’re definitely thinking about these things.”

Alessia Pederzoli | Getty Images

About 35.4 million Americans lived alone in 2016, comprising 28.1 percent of all U.S. households, according to the Census Bureau. The share of those age 65 or older is about 19.5 million people.

If you're single and wondering whether there are aspects of retirement that you should prepare for beyond saving, the answer is yes.

“The biggest challenge I find for singles with no family nearby is estate planning and care,” said CFP Ed Gjertsen II, vice president of Mack Investment Securities in Northfield, Illinois. “You have to have someone to look out for you financially and medically.”

Of course, putting away as much as possible in a 401(k) plan or individual retirement account while you can is important. So is making sure you have emergency savings if you're still working.

Singles in America, by the numbers

110.6 millionUnmarried people age 18 and older in 2016 (45.2% of all adults)
19.5 millionUnmarried people age 65 and older in 2016 (17.7% of all adults)
35.4 millionPeople who lived alone in 2016 (28.1% of all U.S. households)

Source: Source: U.S. Census Bureau

And, if you are still employed, it’s worth seeing if your company offers group insurance for long-term disability. Those policies provide a portion of your income in case you end up unable to work due to an accident or other medical condition.

Here are some other key ways for singles to protect themselves as they age.

Estate planning

While the central part of an estate plan is a will, there are a couple other components that become more important when you are single, regardless of your age. As you get older, however, the chance is greater that they will come into play.

First up is choosing someone to handle your finances if you reach a point where you cannot. Married couples typically name each other. For singles, choosing this person can be more challenging.

When you give someone durable power of attorney for your finances, that person will be in charge of paying bills, filing tax returns and the like. In other words, make sure you choose someone you can trust.

You also should give someone durable power of attorney for health care. That designation lets the chosen person make important health-care decisions if you cannot.

This is separate from a living will, which states your wishes if you are on life support or suffer from a terminal condition. This helps guide your proxy’s decision-making. And if you have no one named, medical personnel must follow your wishes in that document.

How important is a will in wealth planning?
How important is a will in wealth planning?

Remember, too, that if you pass away without a will dictating where you want your assets to go — called dying intestate — the courts in your state will decide who gets them, no matter how meager or sizable.

“Say the court sees you have a sister. But what if you didn’t get along with her?” said CFP Catherine Valega, a vice president at Rockland Trust in Franklin, Massachusetts. “If you care what happens to your money, you should make sure it goes where you want it to.”

Be aware that retirement accounts and insurance policies will go to the named beneficiaries on them, regardless of what your will says. So make sure you keep those beneficiaries up to date.

The good news is that once you make these decisions, you don’t have to think about your estate plan too often. Advisors recommend checking all aspects of it every three to five years unless you face a major life change or move to another state (laws affecting estate plans vary among jurisdictions).

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Long-term care

If you’re single and have no family nearby who can step in if you reach a point where you need help with daily living activities like bathing and dressing, you'll need to plan for how to pay for it.

Someone turning age 65 today has nearly a 70 percent chance of needing such long-term care in their remaining years, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. On average, women need care longer (3.7 years) than men (2.2 years).

It’s important to know that Medicare — which you generally sign up for when you’re 65 — typically doesn’t pay for long-term care. The cost of help can run well into six-figure territory, depending on the level of assistance and length of time provided.

If you have no family members to rely on and you don’t want to spend down your assets — and you’re above the income threshold to qualify for Medicaid — insurance for long-term care can be an option.

“I see women who don’t have children much more interested in exploring long-term care insurance than those with a spouse or other loved ones,” said Sullivan at Sullivan Financial Planning. “They know they’ll have to pay someone to help them out as they get older.”

In general terms, the insurance will pay a daily amount, up to a predetermined dollar limit and length of time, for services.

However, policies can be expensive, costing upwards of $2,000 a year for younger applicants (in their 50s) and twice that for those over age 65. In other words, the younger you are when you consider it, the better.

Strengthen your social circle

When people are younger, their social network tends to be a thriving animal. As they age, however, that circle can get smaller.

While no one is saying you’d need to fill a dance hall with your list of friends, at least make sure you keep relationships alive and even strengthen them. When you’re older, they will become more important.

If you’re single and living alone, you won’t have someone to notice if, say, you fall or have another sort of medical emergency and can’t reach out for help.

"Have friends check on you," Sullivan said. "Or work part-time or volunteer to stay involved so that there are people who know you should show up at a certain place at a certain time.”