Cover: Household Retirement Saving

Household Retirement Saving

The Location of Savings Between Spouses

Published Feb 6, 2017

by Katherine Grace Carman, Angela A. Hung

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Retirement planning is often a joint household decision-making process, and therefore the household is often the more appropriate unit of analysis. However, retirement savings in tax advantaged accounts are held in the name of one individual. While spouses have rights to these assets in the case of divorce and in most cases of death, the separation of accounts in name may cause couples to treat their accounts as separate, with each spouse making decisions separately.

In order to optimize retirement planning, couples should consider the entire household portfolio together, accounting for the characteristics of the retirement accounts, the age of the spouses, and income differences between spouses. With separate accounts, one spouse may not be aware of the contributions or assets accumulated in the other spouse's accounts. This may lead to sub-optimal decision-making, as individuals in a couple may not fully optimize across all available retirement accounts.

Little is known about how households divide retirement contributions and assets between spouses. In this project, we investigate how households locate contributions across tax deferred savings accounts that are nominally held in one spouse's name and how these decisions may impact accumulated assets. In particular we first document who within a couple nominally holds retirement assets. Using data from the Health and Retirement Study and Survey of Consumer Finances, we find that household retirement assets and contributions are more likely to be located in accounts held in the husband's name or the primary earner's name. In our regression analysis, we find that the location of contributions is largely driven by the distribution of earnings within couples.

This study was conducted by RAND Labor and Population.

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