Elderly Americans Increasingly Declaring Bankruptcy in Retirement

Bankruptcy documentsElderly Americans struggling under the weight of credit card debt and medical bills are increasingly resorting to bankruptcy in retirement.

A slew of recent data highlights the problem:
  • A 2010 study from the University of Michigan Law School, called The Rise in Elder Bankruptcy Filings, found that those 65 and older are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population seeking bankruptcy protection
  • The Washington D.C.-based public policy group Demos reports that Americans 65 and above who carry a balance on their credit cards owe an average of $10,235 -- up 26% from 2005.
  • Older debtors who filed for bankruptcy owed a median $22,562 to credit card companies, the Michigan study showed
"The findings are both striking and ominous," says John Pottow, author of the University of Michigan study. "While multiple factors, such as health problems and medical debts, contribute to elders' financial distress, the dominant force appears to be overwhelming burdens related to credit cards."

Pottow's study found that elder debtors carry 50% more credit card debt than younger debtors, and seniors cite credit card interest and fees as a reason for their bankruptcy filings 50% more frequently.

Unfortunately, the rise in bankruptcy filings among the elderly isn't merely a recent phenomenon, or a reflection of the Great Recession. Even before the recession hit, seniors were struggling.

From 1991 to 2007, the rate of personal bankruptcy filings among those ages 65 or older soared by 150%, according to AARP, which released research on the issue via the Consumer Bankruptcy Project. At the time, the biggest jump in bankruptcy filings occurred among people aged 75 to 84; their rate skyrocketed 433%.

Even more alarming: Some experts think that since Americans collectively owe roughly $2.4 trillion on their credit cards and consumer debts, the bankruptcy problem will only continue to grow.

"People usually live off credit cards for a year or so before they file bankruptcy," says bankruptcy attorney Theodore Connolly, the author of The Road Out of Debt: Bankruptcy and Other Solutions to Your Financial Problems.

Connolly notes that personal bankruptcies already hit a record 1.5 million filings in the first half of 2010.

In considering when to file for bankruptcy protection, as I recently reported here on WalletPop, there are times when bankruptcy makes sense and times when other alternatives and strategies are best.

The challenge for seniors, however, is that when they run into financial trouble their options may be somewhat limited. For example, unlike younger Americans who may be able to obtain work, put in more hours on the job, or perhaps get a second job to make ends meet, those choices don't always exist for everyone in their 60s and beyond.

Additionally, there are some issues confronting seniors that the rest of the population generally doesn't face. One big issue: Financial abuse by family members.

"It's an epidemic," says Jenefer Duane, Founder and CEO, Elder Financial Protection Network.

Duane says many elderly Americans are going broke, not just because of their own spending and high health care costs, but also because their assets are being depleted by relatives or close friends who feel entitled to get an expected inheritance now, rather than after the elder has passed away.

"An inheritance is supposed to be what's left after the elder has taken care of themselves. But unfortunately, many family members taking assets from elders are standing by the belief that 'It's going to be my money anyway,' or 'Mom or Dad can just go to a nursing home,'" says Duane. "The sense of entitlement is shocking."

Indeed, senior citizens lose an estimated $2.6 billion from financial exploitation every year, according to a 2009 MetLife Mature Market Institute study.

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