Alice Mantel is an experienced lawyer and adviser on the challenges that many women encounter during retirement. She talks about family law, homelessness, and why just planning one big overseas trip won’t cut it for the final third of your life.
What experiences as a lawyer shaped your decision to advise on planning for retirement?
I spent probably around 10 years practising family and then elder law. In family law particularly, I was surprised and then concerned about how little many of my clients knew about their own personal financial circumstances. Often, they did not know if their name was on the title of the property, or how much was owed on the mortgage or credit cards. Again, when acting for older clients, often they left making their wills or power of attorney until very late, when there was pressure from their children, which, as you can appreciate, is a very difficult situation for any lawyer. It brought home to me that women need to be prepared much sooner for the unexpected.
What inspired you to write your book, Every Woman’s Guide to Retirement?
I started writing this book before I retired. I was initially doing research to answer my own questions. Years ago, when placing my mother into a nursing home, I realised how difficult it was to find any sensible information to assist me. More recently, I wanted some guidance when I was thinking about closing my practice. After a while, I decided that most books or articles did not seem very relevant to me. They were often very friendly but aimed at chaps who were fairly well off or aimed at women who presumably intended to spend the last third of their life on continual holidays. My research gradually grew into a book that is far more extensive than I had ever contemplated and includes mundane topics like accessing your pension as well as more interesting options such as lifelong learning or starting a new relationship.
What issues specifically apply to women? Bulk of carer responsibilities, less superannuation, longer life span?
I see retirement as very different for women than men. Generally, women are the main carers for their parents, children, partners and grandchildren. At the same time, they come into retirement with significantly less financial resources but live on average five years longer. If they do not have enough resources, those last years are going to be close to living in poverty. It can be a very grim prospect if a woman’s health begins to suffer and there is not always the certainty that your children will be there to look after you.
Women aged 55 and above are the fastest-growing cohort at risk of homelessness. How can we do more to ensure financial security?
It is no surprise to me that older women are at risk of homelessness. It can begin if they lose their home in a divorce settlement and cannot recover financially, but also if they are unable to find work and remain unemployed, either as a result of their own or their children’s health issues. When super funds talk about having a modest retirement, or a comfortable retirement, there is always an unspoken assumption that the retiree owns their own home. That’s ridiculous and increasingly unlikely as recent figures have demonstrated. We need to make a secure home a realistic possibility for everyone.
What about social planning for retirement? How can people prepare themselves to leave the workforce and feel at ease that a happy and fulfilling future is still ahead of them?
Most women retiring today can expect to have another 20 years of relatively good health, so it simply isn’t enough to plan your one big overseas trip and think that’s all there is to it. For working women, one of the major issues around retirement is the loss of their work identity, the loss of income and the social connectedness that professional life brings. We need to plan at least a year ahead of retirement about how we can use our skills and experience in the non-employment sphere – and let me assure you, that is a very large sphere. There are so many not-for-profit agencies looking for directors on their boards or volunteers for their operations. Not having to follow a work routine means you can finally pursue your real passion – whether it is art, woodwork, or caring for your grandkids and even if it might take a little time to find what that is, it will give real meaning to the legacy you leave.