Major Life Challenges Blog Series

We are taking a closer look at some of the big issues we all can face in our lifetime. Each topic will be featured as a blog series.

Aging America: In over their heads?

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Aging America

Collectively Americans are carrying $793.1 billion of revolving debt (98 percent of which is made up of credit card debt according to the Federal Reserve. So how much of aging America carries the burden of debt in what are supposed to be their “golden years”?

According to a survey of consumer finances conducted by the Federal Reserve, about 50 percent of households headed by someone between 55 and 64 carry credit card debt. And 37 percent of those headed by someone between 65 and 74 carry credit card debt.


My parents fall into the first age category and thankfully, to the best of my knowledge, have NO debt. Their home is paid for, their cars are paid for, and well my father’s motto has always been, “If you can’t afford to pay cash, you don’t need it.”


Yes, he has a credit card but, he faithfully pays the bill at the end of each month. I am lucky at this point the burden of my parent’s debt will not fall on me. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many other children who are currently helping their parents financially, or expect they will have to in the future.


Are you legally bound to your parent’s debt?


Many of us feel an obligation to our parents they raised us; paid for all our stuff as kids, shouldn’t we return the favor? While this is a personal decision are you legally bound to your parent’s debt?

According to recent federal law here are the guidelines for debt collection after death of a loved one:


  • The Credit CARD Act of 2009 requires the executor of an estate to be informed of the amount quickly, and requires credit card issuers to stop tacking on fees and penalties during the time the estate is being settled.
  • The Federal Trade Commission in July 2011 issued a series of guidelines for debt collection from decedents' friends and relatives. So, if your parents have an estate the money will come from that estate to pay off accumulated debt during their living years. You are not responsible for taking on the debt, just seeing that it is taken care of.


How did this happen?


Why are the elderly becoming the fastest growing population segment to carry consumer debt? Debt seems to become an issue as they retire and begin receiving Social Security or their pension; it’s just not enough to survive on in today’s economy, especially if they are in a position where they are still paying on their mortgage.


The regular monthly bills pile up; utilities cost more, food costs more, and healthcare costs are through the roof. So they turn to credit cards to help them make ends meat. This coupled with an unexpected medical expense such as hospitalization due to a heart attack or stroke sends them over the edge financially.


Their providers are demanding payment, their insurers aren’t covering the costs, and they feel pressured to pay bills they can’t afford by using credit cards. Now their medical debt has turned into credit card debt!


How do you approach your parents?


Joy Loverde of EldercareABC, Inc. writes in her article, Aging Parents and Money from Afar, “Truth is, many elderly people manage their own personal bookkeeping tasks just fine on their own. On the other hand, if this is not the case for your aging parents, and you are aware that they are having difficulty managing their personal monetary affairs because of limited vision, arthritis or other physical and cognitive conditions that limit their ability to write and understand – or they are forgetting to perform financial obligations altogether, will you be able to step in and help if you live miles apart?

If you decide to take on this responsibility, and your parents are open to the idea of your helping them out, there are legal considerations that must be secured ahead of time when assuming the financial chores of another.”


Be prepared for pushback when you try to help aging parents with their financial issues. Here are some ways you may consider broaching the topic:


  • Be direct.  Explain you don’t want to meddle in their financial affairs but you want to help them get a handle on them.
  • Create an “in”.  If you are unsure of their financial situation consider offering to help them file their taxes; this way you can see what’s going on.  Or, offer to start paying their bills for them. You might say, “I know this is a daunting chore each month, may I help you?”
  • Casual conversation. You don’t want to make them feel dumb, casually bring up a recent article or documentary you may have read about identity theft and express your concern for them and their safety.


All of this can be done over the phone or a visit to their house. The important thing to remember is not to make them feel that you are meddling because you don’t want them spending your inheritance.

But, rather that you are genuinely concerned about their well being and that includes their financial health. Help your parents avoid being a statistic!


To Read More Posts From our Blog Series; Medical Debt, Expect the Unexpected, click here


Suzanne is a certified credit counselor and a Social Media Specialist for CareOne Debt Relief Services. Suzanne writes for Divorce, Debt and Finances and Major Life Challenges. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @ADivorcedMom where she shares her insights as a single-divorced mom with tips and tricks to keep your finances in check. 



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  • I just found your site and it has so much great informantion.  I will book mark it to come back to often.  Thank you for sharing.

  • @WorkingBoomer I am so glad you like the site! We are happy to have you as part of our community--feel free to join with no obligation to services; just great information and useful resources.

  • This is a very touchy subject. Thank you for clarifying.

  • @Beck It is indeed a touchy subject and I am glad the article shed some light :)

  • How does this work in a situation where the child doesn't have a relationship with the parent.  Would they still have to shoulder this responsibility?  Are there laws protecting a child who has cut off a relationship with that parent?

  • @Alena  The responsibilty is more of a moral obligation than a legal one. Their debt is their debt; upon their passing any loan obligations would be taken care of by their estate and the rest would be written off by the creditors, upon the family supplying the necessary paperwork.

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