Elderly Bankruptcy Filings Hit All-Time High. What’s to Blame?

In today’s economic climate, it comes as no surprise that millions of Americans are facing unprecedented financial challenges. One group, however, has been hit especially hard: seniors.In ever-increasing numbers, retired Americans are seeking relief in bankruptcy court. Experts have cited a number of factors that contribute to the problem, including high-interest credit card debt and oppressive medical expenses. The trend of rising senior insolvency began even before the recession, and there is seemingly no end in sight. For a great many elderly Americans, the looming threat of potentially costly and complicated bankruptcy proceedings has become a stark reality of their golden years. A Look at the Numbers

For two decades, the number of older Americans filing for bankruptcy has been creeping steadily higher. A report supported by AARP from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project showed a 150 percent increase in bankruptcies between 1991 and 2007 for those over the age of 64. Certain subsets of seniors were especially vulnerable to the trend: the rate of bankruptcy filings for Americans between 75 and 84 during the same time frame climbed an astounding 433 percent. These findings displayed the uniqueness of the financial challenges facing elders: for younger generations, bankruptcies dropped from 1991 to 2007.

Enter the Great Recession. While bankruptcy filings began to cut a wider demographic swath, once again retired Americans bore a disproportionate burden. In 2010, the University of Michigan Law School released a study examining elder bankruptcy. The results hammered home the severity of the problem: citizens 65 and older were shown to be the most rapidly growing demographic segment filing for bankruptcy.

Some are now wondering how so many seniors have become dependent on the protection of the bankruptcy courts. After all, in the not-so-distant past, as a group, older Americans were actually more financially secure than their younger counterparts. Many experts have blamed soaring out-of-pocket medical expenses, along with the rising costs of food and housing that Social Security payments are now too small to cover. But, the new study from the University of Michigan, while acknowledging multiple contributing factors, cites another issue as the primary culprit of many seniors’ financial woes: massive credit card debt. Seniors filing for bankruptcy owe a median balance of $22,562 on their credit cards, and the Michigan study found that interest and fees from credit cards were cited as a reason by elders for filing for bankruptcy 50 percent more often than among younger Americans.

Many older Americans have fallen victim to predatory lending practices, succumbing in one way or another to a torrent of credit card offers. According to experts, before filing for bankruptcy, many live off credit cards for a number of months, either resistant to the idea of asking for help or simply having no one to turn to. For seniors, it is particularly difficult to climb out of a cycle of debt, as their employment options are much more limited compared to younger workers. Additionally, the nationwide epidemic of financial abuse by family members takes a heavy toll on the elderly. From outright theft to seniors’ desire to stretch already overextended resources in an effort to help out relatives also impacted by the tough economy, a spectrum of family issues pose unique challenges to retired Americans.

What Seniors Can Do

A good number of retired Americans were raised with generational values that cast shame on those unable to repay their debts. But, especially considering the complexities of today’s lending culture, it is important for seniors to recognize that considering bankruptcy or asking for help is not a reflection of bad character, but instead can be a prudent first step in getting one’s financial life back on track.

If you are in the midst of some financial setbacks and wondering if bankruptcy might be your best option, contact an experienced Los Angeles bankruptcy attorney. Many law firms specialize in bankruptcy and other debt-relief options, and an attorney can provide advice on the best avenue to pursue your unique situation. Furthermore, your attorney will help smooth out the complexities of the bankruptcy court and ensure your problems are not exacerbated by unnecessarily lengthy proceedings.

Being in debt, especially as you get older, can be a challenging and stressful experience. But, with the proper assistance, you can be on your way to rebuilding a solid financial foundation.

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