More Seniors Cart Credit Card Debt to Grave

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BOSTON (TheStreet) -- They say you can't take it with you -- a saying that these days applies as much to debt as wealth.

Two trends are taking place among the nation's retirees. One group is racking up debt at a pace they won't live long enough to pay off, and have few qualms about doing so. Other debt-heavy retirees feel forced to declare bankruptcy in growing numbers.

A recent survey commissioned by the nonprofit CESI Debt Solutions found that almost 40% of retirees are not worried about paying off their debts during their lifetimes. These debts were typically built up pre- and post-retirement.

Retirement income such as pensions and 401(k)s can't legally be touched by creditors, but retirees with debt can pass obligations to their survivors in some cases.

The survey found that while 56% of retirees had outstanding debts when they left the work force, 96% refused to delay retirement because of the outstanding debt.

Credit card debt, according to CESI, continues to mount after leaving the work force. Although many responding seniors continue to use credit cards for leisure activities, 53% say a bigger expense is using them to buy medicine and pay for doctor visits, hospital stays and other medical expenses. In fact, when asked what they went into debt to buy once retired, more than 75% responded it was for medical or funeral expenses, compared with 39% for vacation time and travel, 31% for entertainment and 33% for clothing and jewelry.

Thirty percent of those polled said they were still paying off a mortgage and 19% had car loans. Four percent were paying for (presumably) someone else's student loans.

"Most people are too scared to talk about their financial problems, especially in their 'golden years,'" says Neil Ellington, executive vice president of CESI. "Retirement is supposed to be all about enjoying the time you've been saving up for, but the reality is many people couldn't save enough ... The golden years can't be golden if you're sinking in a sea of red ink."

In what may be some good news, only 4% said they would consider cashing in investments, such as a 401(k) or IRA, to pay down debt.

Aside from the moral implications of not paying back what you borrow, there may be little downside for those who decide to take their past due statements with them to the grave. Retirement income -- including pensions, 401(k)s, IRAs and Social Security -- can't be legally touched by creditors.

The impact on heirs is another matter. The deceased's estate can fall into the clutches of creditors, with debts deducted (often through a lien) from what would be an inheritance. Surviving family members, so long as they were not a co-signer for a loan, have no legal responsibility to pay off any debts themselves, although stories abound of collection agencies trying to guilt trip them into doing so.

A study by John Pottow, professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, found a "marked rise" in the proportion of elder Americans carrying debt and declaring bankruptcy. Even by prerecession statistics, the trend stands out. From 1991 to 2007, the number of those ages 65 to 74 filing rose 178%. Seniors filing for bankruptcy account for 7% of all petitioners.

Pottow also cites credit card debt as the catalyst.

"While multiple factors such as health problems and medical debts contribute to elders' financial distress, the dominant force appears to be overwhelming burdens related to credit cards," he wrote. "Elder debtors carry 50% more credit card debt than younger debtors, and they cite credit card interest and fees as a reason for their bankruptcy filings 50% more frequently."

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