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Retired and broke: Why retirees are declaring bankruptcy

For more and more seniors, retirement doesn’t mean a debt-free life of leisure. An increasing number of Americans aged 65 and older are declaring bankruptcy, according to a recent study by John Pottow, professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School.

Those aged 65 and older represented seven percent of bankruptcy filers in 2007, a mind-boggling jump from 1991. They are the “fastest-growing age demographic,” according to Pottow’s study.

What’s the culprit for so much debt? Credit cards. Two-thirds of Americans who filed for bankruptcy said credit cards were the key reason for their financial problems, according to Pottow’s research.

Besides having more credit card debt compared with younger bankruptcy filers, 44.8 percent of those aged 65 and older also had more plastic in their wallets. “They’re using credit cards as a maladaptive coping mechanism,” Pottow says.

Stephanie Osterland, a supervisor in the bankruptcy department at GreenPath debt solutions, sees an increasing number of seniors living beyond their means. Says Osterland: “They’re just trying to live off of a fixed income, and that’s usually Social Security. Maybe they have a small pension. We find they’ve used credit cards to supplement that income and expenses or they just end up getting into a lot of medical debt.”

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