During the last five years, three out of five (62%) Americans age 50 and older have provided financial assistance to members of their family, including adult children, parents, grandchildren, siblings or other relatives, according to a Merrill Lynch study.

This is a reminder of the generosity that runs through our culture, and of the importance people place on helping family, especially during challenging times.

Conducted in partnership with Age Wave, ‘Family & Retirement: The Elephant in the Room’ is an in-depth study exploring modern family interdependencies and the challenges boomers (currently age 47 to 67) face in balancing them with their own retirement plans and financial security.

Conducted in August 2013, the study is based on a nationally representative survey of more than 5,400 respondents.

The average financial assistance provided to family members during the last five years was nearly US$15,000 – and significantly more among the nation’s wealthiest families. This support may have been to help relatives meet a one-time need or ongoing assistance over the course of many years, and was often given without expecting anything in return.

However, the vast majority of people age 50+ (88%) have not factored such support for family into their financial planning. The study also found a dangerous absence of proactive discussion and establishment of safe boundaries among family members as they navigate these interdependencies.

Andy Sieg, head of Global Wealth and Retirement Solutions for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said: "Given the challenging economic climate during the past several years, it’s not surprising that so many Americans have extended financial support to their loved ones. However, such admirable willingness to assist family members should not place one’s own long-term financial security in jeopardy, and can be a hidden risk to retirement that must be considered and planned for."

Additional highlights from the study include:

  • Are you the family bank? Nearly three in five people (56%) age 50+ believe a member of their family is the "family bank," meaning someone who their extended family is most likely to turn to for financial help. This person is often the one who is most financially responsible, has the most money or is the easiest to approach.
  • Sacrificing retirement for family: Half of pre-retirees age 50+ say they would make major sacrifices that could impact their retirement to help family members. Among these pre-retirees, 60% would retire later, 40% would return to work after retiring, and more than one-third (36%) say they would accept a less comfortable retirement lifestyle to help family financially.
  • Generosity and inheritance: Those helping family financially rarely do so because they expect future help or payback. People age 50+ are 20 times more likely to say they are helping family because "it is the right thing to do" than because "family members will help them in the future" (80% vs. 4%); and they are five times more likely to stop support because a recipient is not using the money wisely than because of worries about being paid back (57% vs. 11%). This generosity extends to a shift in mindset regarding inheritance, with 60% of people age 50+ saying they would prefer to begin passing on their assets during retirement rather than waiting until the end of life. Women age 50+ are even more likely than men to feel this way (65% vs. 53%).
  • Marriage in retirement: Close to half of married retirees say their marriage is more fulfilling (48%) and loving (45%) in retirement, and just 11% say it is more boring or contentious. However, divorce is becoming increasingly common among older adults. One in seven people age 50 and older who were once married are now divorced and single – a seven-fold increase since 1960. Divorce in maturity, or "gray divorces," often creates substantial financial hardship, especially for women. After a divorce, average household income drops by more than 40% for women and by 25% for men.
  • Blended families: Rising divorce rates, which peaked in the 1980s among all age groups and doubled between 1990 and 2010 among people age 50+, have contributed significantly to the rise in blended families. Nearly two in five people (37%) age 50 and older are now part of a blended family. Nearly one-third (31%) of people age 50+ with stepchildren say it complicates financial planning, a % age equal to those who say they and their spouse have different financial priorities for their own children than they have for their stepchildren (32%).

Ken Dychtwald, founder and CEO of Age Wave, said: "Families are a major source of fulfillment during retirement years – but can also create unforeseen financial pressures. 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 the vast majority of people age 50+ have not prepared for potential family events and challenges that could affect their retirement, including:

  • Perpetual parenthood and boomerangs: One in five parents (19%) age 50+ have at least one "boomerang" adult child who has moved back in with them. More than two-thirds (68%) of parents age 50+ 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 widowed4 and 14% of people age 50 and older are divorced5.
  • Early retirement: Less than one in four (23%) adults age 50+ 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 reasons6. 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 dementias7.
  • 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 will8. Most people (86%) age 50+ would prefer to receive care in their own home, if needed. 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%).
  • No. 1 retirement concern – becoming a burden: When asked their greatest worry about living a long life, older adults (age 68 to 88) cite "being a burden on family" on par with running out of money to live comfortably (both 31%). However, 66% of people age 50+ admit they have taken no steps to avoid having to live with a family member if unable to live on their own.

Troubling lack of discussion
The study also found a significant lack of proactive discussion and engagement between family members on key financial topics. This can negatively impact various aspects of one’s retirement and overall financial security.

Seventy % of adult children age 25+ have not had a discussion with parents about their retirement and other issues related to aging. And more than half (56%) of parents age 50+ say they have not discussed any important financial issues – such as a will, health directive, inheritance plans and where they plan to live in retirement – with their adult children. Furthermore, just one in four (24%) siblings age 50+ have discussed how their parents will be financially provided for, or cared for, as they get older.

Across all relationships, the most common catalyst for such discussions is the death or illness of a family member or friend (43%), and the top barriers for having an open conversation include fear of family conflict (24%) and the fact that such topics are just too uncomfortable to discuss (19%). People who do have these discussions with family members are, on average, nearly twice as likely to say they would be well prepared financially if faced with a family challenge.

David Tyrie, head of Retirement and Personal Wealth Solutions for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said: "Proactive discussions and coordination with family members can be the difference between smooth sailing and significant hardship when confronting financial challenges leading up to and through retirement. Although many of these topics can be difficult to discuss, there is a clear benefit to having family conversations and planning ahead. We help our clients prepare for and work through such important issues, so that their families’ needs are addressed and their goals can still be achieved."