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This week the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy released statistics stating that an increasing number of senior citizens are filing for bankruptcy in Canada. Here’s a quote from the report:

From 1989 to 2009, the proportion of insolvent consumers between 18 and 34 years of age has fallen steadily (from 12.9 percent to 4.4 percent among those 18 to 24 years of age and 43.0 percent to 22.3 percent among those 25 to 34 years of age). Over the same period, the proportion of insolvent consumers among older age groups has increased (from 11.3 percent to 24.7 percent among those 45 to 54 years of age and among those 55 years of age and above the proportion has more than quadrupled from 4.6 percent to 20.6 percent).

So why are more seniors declaring personal bankruptcy?

As a licensed bankruptcy trustee helping people file bankruptcy in Ontario, I have a number of thoughts on why the percentage of seniors filing bankruptcy is increasing.

First, as every resident of Canada is aware, we are in a recession. A recession hurts everyone. It’s possible that in the current economic downturn more seniors have lost their jobs, or had their incomes reduced, leading to serious financial problems. Often when a company needs to cut back, they cut their highest paid workers, which often are their older workers.

Second, a growing number of Canadians in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s are carrying mortgages and other debts into retirement. Twenty or thirty years ago Canadians typically retired with little or no debt; they paid off their mortgage before they retired. That was possible because by the age of 65 most Canadians were able to pay off their debts.

However, today, it’s not uncommon to be laid off while you are still in your 40’s or 50’s, and if you are unable to find a similarly well paying job, you may be forced into early retirement before you are able to pay off your debts. That’s why it’s increasingly important to keep your debts as low as possible, in the event your job situation unexpectedly changes.

Third, many seniors assumed that their house or other real estate would be their “retirement fund.” They assumed that when their children were grown and they themselves retired they would sell their house and move to a smaller house, pocketing the difference. Unfortunately with the weak real estate market over the last two years house prices in many areas of Canada have declined, so seniors cannot sell their house for as much as they had hoped.

Finally, I meet with a significant number of seniors who were good money managers, and had little or no debt for most of their lives, but then they go into debt to help their adult children. If you are 60 years old with no debt and a paid off house, and your 30 year old son or daughter loses their job, and they have a young family to support, what do you do? Many parents help their children, and often they help them by re-mortgaging their house, or getting a line of credit. If your child is not able to pay you back, the senior, on a reduced income, is left with more debt than they can handle.

Does this mean you shouldn’t help your children or other friends and family when they have financial problems? No, if you want to help, you should, but it’s important to help with cash, and not to incur excessive debt to help others.

What’s the solution?

First, we should all strive to have little or no debt. You may not have a lot of savings when you retire, but if you retire with no debt you will probably be able to survive with your company and government pensions.

Second, seniors should be careful to only help others within their means; don’t risk bankruptcy for yourself by borrowing excessively to help others.

If you have more debt than you can handle, check out our free, interactive debt options calculator that calculates your different debt management options. It may be possible to work through your debts on your own, or perhaps file a consumer proposal to avoid bankruptcy, but professional advice is wise to fully explore your options.