Sudden reversals of fortune can wreck retirement plans for even the most disciplined savers, particularly when the financial setback is the result of an involuntary retirement.

Evidence of this was contained in a study released last month by Wellesley, Mass.-based SunLife Financial. Among the report’s findings: Many respondents had only about half of the financial assets they were anticipating at retirement. And many had to reduce expenses, change their lifestyle and rely on Social Security benefits earlier than expected.

“It’s great when clients plan for retirement and do income and expense forecasting,” says Mary Fay, a senior vice president and general manager, annuities, at Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada. “But the message of this study is that they had better start thinking about a rainy day scenario in the event of a forced retirement.”

The SunLife Financial survey found that 22% of 701 respondents were forced into retirement several years before they had anticipated. The involuntary retirements left most individuals “well short” of their financial goals, adversely affecting the retirement plans of 69% of those polled.

The degree of impact varied inversely with age. Seventy-seven percent of respondents under age 55 said their forced retirement affected them “somewhat” or “a great deal.” This compares with 72% and 62%, respectively, of individuals in the 55 to 64 and 65-plus age brackets who offered the same response.

Net worth was also a factor. Of individuals who held $250,000-plus in assets, 77% said the forced retirement impacted them “somewhat” or “a great deal.” Among respondents whose assets ranged from $250,000 to $750,000 and $750,000-plus, 70% and 54%, respectively, answered in similar fashion.

Respondents attributed their involuntary retirements chiefly to “lay-offs/downsizing” and “personal illness or injury.” The latter had the greater impact: 76% of those reporting an injury/illness were significantly affected versus 63% who were laid off. And more individuals experienced an illness or injury (46%) than a downsizing (44%).

On average, the individuals were forced into retirement in their mid-fifties, but had hoped to retire in their mid-sixties. The report noted only a slight gender gap: Men retired on average at age 57, whereas women retired at age 55.

How can advisors help boomers who suffer such a misfortune? Lisa Weinstein, a Hartsdale, N.Y.-based financial planner, says they can first explore clients’ ability to fund a career transition. Money held in savings may be needed, for example, to cover tuition costs at a vocational school or institution of higher learning; or, should the client want to start a business, then tapping a home equity loan.

“Few people want to hang it up at age 50 or 55,” says Weinstein. “They want to be vital. Even folks who plan to retire early want to have the option of doing something else with their lives, usually work that gives them more personal control and freedom.”

In the interim, they’ll need to have an adequate cash reserve to help them through the transition. To that end, Weinstein recommends that clients have enough in savings to carry them for at least 6 months; and that they readjust their lifestyle to reflect their current circumstances.

Often, that means foregoing luxuries or moving into a smaller home. Weinstein cites a client who, on losing his job, moved from New York to Maine to live in a log cabin to provide for a child with special needs.

If, however, circumstances prevent a return to work, the adjustment will have to be for the long term. Assuming a personal injury or illness was the cause of retirement, then disability income insurance, including a group policy procured through the former employer, supplemented by an individual DI policy, can replace most of the client’s income (generally up to 80%), sources say.

But advisors also recommend that clients maximize contributions among a mix of retirement accounts while still employed to help cushion the blow. Assuming DI insurance can’t be leveraged–particularly after 65, when policy benefits often expire–then the retirement savings (less other applicable funds, such as Social Security or a severance package) will have to fund the client’s income requirements in full.

“Generally, the client will want to maintain both qualified and nonqualified investments,” says Weinstein. “You don’t want to be pulling money out of a 401(k) or IRA because of the penalties involved.”

Investments aside, can and should clients factor the eventuality of a forced retirement into their financial planning? Weinstein thinks this is unrealistic.

“[Forced retirement] planning is a difficult thing to do because it would cause a cutback in living standards beyond what you would normally do in a retirement plan,” she says. “Also, in most cases, people have no clue as to what’s going to happen to them. So the retirement planning necessarily has to be based on their situation today.”