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Savings and Income at Death Indicate Retirement Shortfall

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MAY 11, 2015 VOLUME 22 NUMBER 18

You’ve probably read and/or heard about concerns that Americans do not save enough money to get through their retirement. A recent report from the Employee Benefit Research Institute shows just how stark the situation is — by focusing on the actual savings held by people who died over a two-year period (2010-2012).

The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) is a non-partisan professional group, headquartered in Washington, D.C. Its members include a range of retirement-related companies and organizations. It is perhaps most famous for its annual “Retirement Confidence Survey,” which attempts to capsulize the level of confidence American workers have in their retirement situation (spoiler alert: about half of workers are “very confident” or “somewhat confident” that they have enough savings to be comfortable in retirement).

The new study, though, takes a different look at retirement savings. Rather than considering whether recent retirees and prospective retirees are confident about their savings, it looks at the savings remaining at the time of a retiree’s death. The results are unsettling. They are even more unsettling, in many regards, for younger retirees and those just approaching retirement.

According to the EBRI’s summary description of the research (in its April, 2015, “Notes”), almost one-quarter of those dying after age 85 left less than $10,000 in total assets — including the equity in their homes. Half of those had no assets at all. But among those who died between ages 50 and 65, the figures are much higher. About 45% of those younger decedents left assets of less than $10,000, and almost a third of that age group had no assets.

If you ignore home equity, the figures are even more stark. Almost 60% of those dying at ages 50-65 left non-home assets of less than $10,000, and about 43% of older decedents fit into that category.

The study also finds a large gap between married decedents and their unmarried counterparts. Both assets and family income were higher for married couples. Consider one example: for decedents dying between ages 50 and 65, what proportion died with non-home assets of less than $10,000? For those leaving a surviving spouse, 46% fit into that category of near-impoverishment. For single decedents in the same age group, over 75% left less than the $10,000 figure. And how did their older colleagues fare? Much better: about one-quarter of married decedents over age 85 left household assets of less than $10,000, while exactly half of single decedents in that age group left less than $10,000.

The study also addressed the importance of Social Security income for retirees in their last years of life. Across all of the categories, Social Security provided between half and three-quarters of all income — both for single individuals and married couples — at the time of death. Interestingly, that figure varies consistently by marital status (married couples have slightly lower percentages of their income from Social Security than their single counterparts in all age groups) but inconsistently by age. The oldest retirees actually were slightly less dependent on Social Security than their younger counterparts, with one exception: the lowest reliance on Social Security was among couples where one partner died between ages 65 and 74.

What were those income levels? Quite low. Here are some of the groupings, by age and marital status, with their average income:

  • Unmarried individuals dying after age 85 had average income of $25,086 at death. Married decedents had incomes much higher, at $50,125. In each case, the other members of their households (the single retirees might have had children or unmarried partners living with them, for instance) were within a few thousand dollars of the same figures.
  • Unmarried individuals dying at ages 75-84 had lower incomes than their slightly older counterparts, at $18,554. Married decedents had average income of $45,376 — much more than their single same-age counterparts, but about 10% less than their slightly older, married counterparts. Decedents in the 65-74 age group were almost indistinguishable from the 75-84 group.
  • Interestingly, single decedents aged 50-64 had the lowest average income of all (at $17,099), while their married counterparts had the highest income (at $61,100). That might be because some significant percentage of those recent- and near-retirees lived with spouses who were still actively working.
  • Generally speaking, the other household members living with decedents tended to have notably higher incomes at the younger ages, and equivalent or lower incomes than the decedents at older ages.

Altogether, the report is an interesting slice of retirement analysis. Its focus on how well things were working out (financially speaking) at the time of the average retiree’s death gives a more complete picture of America’s retirement health. And the numbers are fairly troubling — the bottom line is that between about a quarter and about a half of all retirement-age individuals die with few or no assets, and average incomes hover in the range of about $2,000/month or less.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

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Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.