An alarming number of older Americans are being forced into bankruptcy, as the rate of people 65 and older who have filed has never been higher - at three times what it was in 1991, while the rate of bankruptcies among Americans age 65 and older has more than doubled, according to a new study by the The Bankruptcy Project.
Older Americans are increasingly likely to file consumer bankruptcy, and their representation among those in bankruptcy has never been higher. Using data from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, we find more than a two-fold increase in the rate at which older Americans (age 65 and over) file for bankruptcy and an almost five-fold increase in the percentage of older persons in the U.S. bankruptcy system. The magnitude of growth in older Americans in bankruptcy is so large that the broader trend of an aging U.S. population can explain only a small portion of the effect.
The median senior filing bankruptcy enters the system $17,390 in debt, vs. an average net worth of $250,000 for their non-bankrupt peers.
According to the study, a three-decade shift of financial risk from government and employers to individuals is at fault, as aging Americans are dealing with longer waits for full Social Security benefits, 401(k) plans replacing employer-provided pensions and more out-of-pocket spending on items such as health care.
“When the costs of aging are off-loaded onto a population that simply does not have access to adequate resources, something has to give,” the study says, “and older Americans turn to what little is left of the social safety net — bankruptcy court.”
“You can manage O.K. until there is a little stumble,” said Deborah Thorne, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Idaho and an author of the study. “It doesn’t even take a big thing.”
The data gathered by the researchers is stark. From February 2013 to November 2016, there were 3.6 bankruptcy filers per 1,000 people 65 to 74; in 1991, there were 1.2.
Not only are more older people seeking relief through bankruptcy, but they also represent a widening slice of all filers: 12.2 percent of filers are now 65 or older, up from 2.1 percent in 1991.
The jump is so pronounced, the study says, that the aging of the baby boom generation cannot explain it.
Although the actual number of older people filing for bankruptcy was relatively small — about 100,000 a year during the period in question — the researchers said it signaled that there were many more people in financial distress. -NYT
“The people who show up in bankruptcy are always the tip of the iceberg,” said Robert M. Lawless, an author of the study and a law professor at the University of Illinois.
In the Bankruptcy Project's latest study - posted online Sunday and submitted to an academic journal for peer review, studies personal bankruptcy cases and questionnaires submitted by 895 BK filers aged 19 through 92.
The questionnaire asked filers what led them to seek bankruptcy protection. Much like the broader population, people 65 and older usually cited multiple factors. About three in five said unmanageable medical expenses played a role. A little more than two-thirds cited a drop in income. Nearly three-quarters put some blame on hounding by debt collectors.
The study does not delve into those underlying factors, but separate data provides some insight. The median household led by someone 65 or older had liquid savings of $60,600 in 2016, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, whereas the bottom 25 percent of households had saved at most $3,260. -NYT
Meanwhile, by 2013 the average Medicare beneficiary's out-of-pocket health care expenses ate up around 41% of the average Social Security payment, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Moreover, more people are entering their senior years in debt. For many, that means a mortgage - roughly 41% of senior debt in 2016, which is nearly double the 21% rate from 1989, according to the Urban Institute.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the lowest-income households led by individuals 55 or older carry the highest debt loads relative to their income. More than 13 percent of such households face debt payments that equal more than 40 percent of their income, nearly double the percentage of such families in 1991, the employee benefit institute found. -NYT
What isn't helping is that many older parents report that helping their children contributed to their bankruptcies. Seattle bankruptcy attorney Marc Stern says he's seen parents co-sign loans for $10,000 or $20,000 for their kids, only to find themselves on the hook when their offspring couldn't service the debt.
“When you are living on $2,000 a month and that includes Social Security — and you have rent and savings are minuscule — it is extremely difficult to recover from something like that,” he said.
Others parents had had co-signed their children’s student loans. “I never saw parents with student loans 20 or 30 years ago,” Mr. Stern said.
“It is not uncommon to see student loans of $100,000,” he added. “Then, you see parents who have guaranteed some of these loans. They are no longer working, and they have these student loans that are difficult if not impossible to pay or discharge in bankruptcy, and these are the kids’ loans.”
CEO of Elder Law of Michigan, Keith Morris, said that bankruptcy was a hot topic among callers to a legal hotline he established for older adults.
“They worked all of their lives, and did what they were supposed to do,” he said, “and through circumstances like a late-life divorce or a death of a spouse or having to raise grandkids, have put them in a situation where they are not able to make the bills.”