Financial abuse doesn’t get as much attention as physical and emotional abuse and is not as commonly understood—but a study by the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that a startling 99% of domestic violence cases involved some form of financial abuse as well.
Financial abuse is insidious not only because it so often goes unrecognized or discussed but because it can be a sly gateway to other forms of mistreatment, including physical violence.
While there is no one perfect way to manage money in a marriage, financial abuse is, at its core, about control, power, and manipulation. It can keep the victimized spouse or partner trapped in the relationship, feeling insecure, inadequate, disempowered, and helpless to escape. In this way, it is closely tied to emotional abuse, and it leaves the victim vulnerable to other kinds of harm—it may even be an early warning sign.
A partner who is financially abused may feel unable to leave. Without access to cash, credit, or assets, they cannot provide basic needs like food, clothes, shelter, and medical care for themselves or their children. There are long-term implications as well. Ruined credit, for example, can make it extremely difficult for the survivor to establish security and independence—which unfortunately can cause them to return to an unsafe situation.
There are many forms of financial abuse. Some are so subtle that the victim doesn’t recognize what is happening—they may underplay it or excuse it as a bothersome but “normal” part of the relationship. It may start with minor, seemingly innocuous issues and intensify gradually. Sometimes it has been going on for years and years; in other cases, it begins when a marriage falls apart, and a split is imminent.
It can look different from marriage to marriage, but financial abuse falls into a few main categories:
- Exploiting the victim’s resources
- Restricting or disrupting the victim’s employment
- Taking control of shared money and assets
The bruises and scars of physical assault may be easy to identify, but financial abuse can hide in plain sight. There are common, identifiable tactics used by abusers, however. Know the warning signs and consider whether your spouse engages in any of the following behaviors:
- Demand control of money or assets you’ve earned, saved, or brought to the marriage?
- Steal money from you or your family?
- Borrow from you and not repay?
- Put you on an allowance or tight budget against your wishes or without your input?
- Intercept your paychecks or insist you turn them over?
- Spend your money without your knowledge or consent?
- Restrict your access to your own or shared accounts?
- Prevent you from obtaining/having/using credit cards or bank cards?
- Keep you out of financial decision-making?
- Demand an account for every dime you spend or turn over every receipt?
- Run up credit card bills in your name without paying them off?
- Apply for credit or loans in your name without consent, or force you to take out loans?
- Withhold basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, medication?
- Interfere with your ability to work or perform your job well?
- Prevent you from seeking employment or getting skills training?
- Coerce you into giving over power of attorney so they can sign legal documents without your consent?
- Threaten to cut you off financially for disagreement or pushback?
- Live in your shared home without helping contribute to the family’s needs (either financially or through household tasks)?
- Inflict emotional or physical abuse when angry about your financial decisions or spending?
If you are a victim of financial abuse, you may feel scared and powerless, and even uncertain about what’s happening. But it’s not acceptable, and you do not need to stay in the situation. If you are in danger, contact a domestic violence advocate to help you create a safety plan for leaving. Gather your important documents and remove them from the home. Seek the support of trusted family and friends.
Find a lawyer with experience in financial abuse cases. The attorneys at Schoenberg Family Law Group, P.C., helps clients establish priorities, choose their battles, and secure their fair share of the assets so that they will emerge from the divorce in the most advantageous financial position.
By Debra Schoenberg