The Life Expectancy of Older Couples And Surviving Spouses

Janice Compton, Robert A. Pollak

NBER Working Paper No. 25009
Issued in September 2018, Revised in March 2019
NBER Program(s):Labor Studies

Individual life expectancies provide useful summary measures for individuals making retirement decisions and for policy makers. For couples, analogous measures are the expected years both spouses will be alive (joint life expectancy) and the expected years the surviving spouse will spend as a widow or widower (survivor life expectancy). Using individual life expectancies to calculate summary measures for couples yields misleading results because the mortality distribution of husbands and wives overlap substantially. To illustrate, consider a wife aged 60 whose husband is 62. In 2010, the wife's life expectancy was 24.5 years and her husband's 20.2 years. It is incorrect to infer from these individual life expectancies that the wife is overwhelmingly likely to outlive her husband and, if she does, that her life expectancy as a widow is relatively brief. The couple's joint life expectancy is 17.7 years, the probability that the wife will outlive her husband is 0.62 and, if she does, her survivor life expectancy is 12.5 years. We calculate trends and patterns in joint and survivor life expectancy in each census year from 1930 to 2010. Using 2010 data, we also investigate differences in joint and survivor life expectancy by race and ethnicity and by education.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w25009

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