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Why Your Retirement Is in Peril

By Hal M. Bundrick

NEW YORK (MainStreet) Your retirement savings is dwindling, but family members think of you as "the family bank." You're easy to approach in times of need, happy to help and always willing to put family first. There's just one problem: your family generosity exceeds your financial capacity.

Nearly three out of five (62%) Americans age 50 and older have provided financial assistance to family members during the past five years of economic stress, according to a new Merrill Lynch study. Handing over an average of $15,000, without expecting anything in return, many family benefactors (88%) aren't taking into account how their kindness is impacting their own retirement readiness.

Well more than half (56%) of those 50 and over surveyed believe a member of their family is the "family bank" -- someone to turn to for financial help. This person is often perceived as being the most financially responsible, having the most money, or simply as being the easiest to approach.

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Half of these same pre-retirees say they would retire later (60%), return to work after retirement (40%) or face a less comfortable retirement lifestyle (36%) in order to offer family financial assistance, simply because "it is the right thing to do."

"Families are a major source of fulfillment during retirement years but can also create unforeseen financial pressures," said Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Age Wave, a partner in the research. "Too often, people plan for their retirement without factoring in how they might be called upon to help out their adult children, aging parents and siblings. In this new era of extended longevity and increased family interdependencies, retirement planning is no longer about just an individual or couple, but also about the needs and hopes of our loved ones."

The study found that most people 50 and over haven't prepared for family circumstances that could affect their retirement, including:

  • Perpetual parenthood and boomerangs: One in five parents (19%) age 50 and over have at least one "boomerang" adult child who has moved back in with them. More than two-thirds (68%) of parents age 50 and over have provided some form of financial support to their adult children during the last five years among which, 36% did so without knowing how their money was being used. Those parents who are aware of how their money is being spent say it is given to help adult children with their rent or mortgage (20%), cell phone bills (18%), car payments (17%), health care expenses (15%) and student loans (11%), among other things.
  • Loss of a spouse through death or divorce: Only one-third (33%) of people age 50 and older say they feel well prepared for retirement if everything goes as they expect. Less than one-quarter (24%) would feel prepared if their spouse died a troubling statistic given that more than half of women over the age of 70 have been widowed and 14% of people age 50 and older are divorced.
  • Early retirement: Less than one in four (23%) adults age 50 and over say they would be prepared financially if they or their spouse were forced to retire early because of a health problem, despite the fact that one-third of people in the U.S. who retire early do so for health reasons. While younger people consider cancer to be the greatest health-related worry of later life, older adults unequivocally say Alzheimer's; nearly half of people age 85 and older have Alzheimer's or related dementias.
  • Care giving and receiving: The vast majority of people age 50+ (91%) say they would not be prepared if an aging parent or relative needed extended long-term care. While 37% of people age 50 and older believe they may need long-term care in their lifetime, the reality is that twice as many 70% eventually will. Most people (86%) age 50+ would prefer to receive care in their own home, and essentially no one would choose to receive care in a family member's home a choice as unpopular as moving into a nursing home (both just 2%).

Older adults (age 68 to 88) say being a burden to their family is as big of a concern as running out of money (both 31%). Yet two-thirds of people age 50 and over admit they have taken no steps to avoid having to live with a family member in the event they were unable to live on their own.

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet

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