Getting Ready for a Surprise Retirement

Work often stops unexpectedly. You'd better be prepared with a financial plan.

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Keeping one eye on the job market even while happily employed can help to insulate you from long periods of unemployment. "It certainly doesn't hurt to have your résumé polished up and available in case another job turns up," says Olivia Mitchell, director of the Boettner Center for Pensions and Retirement Research at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "Everyone I know is constantly networking."

Educate yourself. Keeping your skills current or developing new ones by taking classes can help keep you employed at any age. That way, "even if you get downsized, someone will want to hire you," Mitchell says.

About a third of people over 50 end up back in the workforce after having considered themselves retired, according to research by Sewin Chan of New York University. "We hypothesize that they are returning because, once retiring, it's not what they thought it would be and they take a dent to their asset portfolios," she says. But employers don't always want older workers, who are often more expensive than their younger counterparts and tend to have more health problems. "When firms are laying off workers, it tends to be the case that older workers tend to be paid more and so in some ways they are the most attractive ones to let go," Chan says.

Make a new plan. Ideally, you will find a new job or activity that gives you the control you had over your finances while you were working. Fran Doll, a former small-business owner in Akron, Ohio, found herself suddenly retired at age 56, when a routine mammogram found a tumor. Within a year, Doll endured two rounds of chemotherapy, radiation treatment that burned her lung by mistake (a rare complication), a partial mastectomy, and a nearly monthlong hospital stay. She hit bottom when she was transferred to a nursing home.

But Doll, now 67, took back control of her retirement. "Most important is having a succession plan and being proactive if you are diagnosed with a serious illness," she says. She sold her employment service, Superior Staffing, to two of her six children, and the care of her family helped her recover and move back home. It even allowed boredom to creep into her formerly busy lifeā€”that is, until she saw a news report about Jessica Lunsford, a Florida girl abducted from her grandmother's home and held captive before being buried alive.

In 2006, Doll, a grandmother of 10, launched Grandparents Against Sex Predators, a group of civilians trained to go out and search when a child is abducted, in partnership with the Summit County, Ohio, sheriff's office. The group eventually attracted the interest of the Fox TV show America's Most Wanted. "Expect that anything could happen to anyone at any moment," counsels Doll. That advice applies equally to preventing crime and planning for retirement.