Recession forcing more senior citizens into bankruptcy

The Miami HeraldMarch 30, 2009 

Jose Abrahantes has been working for about half a century – in construction, landscaping, even as a janitor cleaning offices on the night shift. He figured he would eventually enjoy a relaxing retirement.

But at 66, with medical bills piling up after an emergency surgery, Abrahantes has filed for bankruptcy. Retirement isn't even in the picture. Instead, he's working part-time at a Publix bakery.

"I had no choice," said Abrahantes, who rents a modest Little Havana apartment with his wife, Carmen. "If I'm making $8 an hour and trying to live off that, there's no way I'm going to pay down all my bills."

Abrahantes is one of a growing number of senior citizens doing what they once thought unthinkable – or, as Abrahantes put it, "embarrassing and painful." Hit hard by the slumping economy, unable to pay mounting bills from meager retirement savings, older Americans are filing for protection from their creditors in record numbers. Experts said many end up bankrupt because of medical bills they can't afford to pay. Others simply can't cover their living expenses with their Social Security and savings.

In 2007, Americans 55 and older accounted for 23 percent of the more than one million Americans who filed for bankruptcy, a threefold increase from 1991, according to a recent AARP study. They experienced the sharpest increase in bankruptcy filings of all age groups, jumping from 8.2 percent of all debtors. The numbers are especially stark for older seniors, with bankruptcy more than quadrupling for seniors ages 75 to 84.

Elizabeth Warren, a professor at Harvard Law School and the AARP study's author, said these bankruptcy filings provide a snapshot of the financial vulnerability of older Americans who "now, more than ever, are confronting serious financial challenges."

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