What is financial abuse?
Financial abuse occurs when the abuser uses financial means such as withholding child support or spousal support to keep their “other” in control. It is a form of coercion and control. This often happens when the survivor depends on the abuser for support.
How often does this happen?
Research indicates that financial abuse occurs in 99% of domestic violence cases. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that since 2016, financial abuse as a condition of a contact’s experience has increased 13% annually. Financial abuse, like all domestic abuse, occurs across all socioeconomic, educational, racial, and ethnic groups.
It starts with “love” but becomes “abuse”
Financial abuse can begin subtly with the display of “attention and interest” by a partner, but progress over time to an exercise of “power and control” by the lover. The “lover” suggests that he controls the finances because after all he works in finance and earns more than his partner. When told about an awkward colleague at work or a difficult boss, the “lover” asks his partner to leave “this dreadful job” and claims that he can “support them both” and that it will give them “more time together”. The lover offers his partner weekly money, an allowance, to cover his needs. Trust often leads to a situation of financial control in which the “lover” becomes an “aggressor” questioning every expense and the partner is their “victim” subject to their expert control and questioning of spending. The abuser decreases the allowance over time unless the victim complies with his demands.
KL was financially dependent on her husband. He convinced her to quit her job as a fashion consultant to high roller men so they would have “more time together”. He did not open a joint bank account. She never received a credit card and was not added to her credit card. She had no access to money or credit. If she needed to buy something, she had to ask her husband for his credit card to make the purchase. Her credit card was on her UBER account — so he could tell when she was using the UBER account. He had to approve every purchase she made (including groceries). If she wanted to buy a dress, she had to call him from the store, photograph himself in the dress, and if he liked it on her, he would pay for the dress directly over the phone. If she slept with him, he left his money on the table.
PC’s husband used the payment of the money he owed her as leverage for more visitation time with their children. He convinced her to sign an agreement in which she gave up her rights to any interest in businesses established during their marriage before they knew what those businesses were really worth.
Both KE and NM had husbands who refused to allow them to use the air conditioner in their homes. The pair took the money from the wedding, depositing it in their account and claiming it all came from their side of the family.
NM was asked about a $10.00 candle and the cost of a pair of boots. When her husband refused to buy the pram she wanted for the baby and a friend bought it, he demanded that she send it back to him.
JE obtained a protective order against her husband. She received Social Security benefits for their children through the husband. He changed the account where the money was deposited so that she would not receive any child support benefits.
Getting trapped in an abusive relationship
Financial abuse is one of the methods abusers use to keep a survivor trapped in an abusive relationship. Survivors report that worry about their ability to financially support themselves and their children is one of the main reasons given for staying or returning to an abusive partner. Many victims return to abusive relationships because they are driven by the basic necessities of life. They are financially insecure, have nowhere to go, and do not want to live in a shelter.
The courtroom is used by abusers to inflict further harm on their victims
In court, the ‘abusers’ claim their victims are credit card spenders who are incompetent at handling money, only care about money and would spend endlessly on themselves and are spendthrifts who need someone else to manage household funds. They also claim that money has been spent and may get away with deliberately hiding accounts from their spouse or partner to avoid distribution of the funds they contain.
These allegations of incompetence are often associated with allegations of unsuitability to the parent or of instability or mental illness.
What can be done to help victims in the justice system?
Victims who seek safety and justice for themselves and their children through family courts and other legal systems may instead face misuse of court processes by their partners to exercise coercive control. and financial abuse of them, often referred to as legal abuse.
I have listened to many women in my practice tell me that an ex-lover or ex-spouse seeks custody not because they want more time with a child, but because they want more time with his mother and more control over her. Courts often look at this information with an eye of disbelief, believing that all parents have only noble reasons for wanting to spend more time with their children, and are too quick to believe that any mother who claims otherwise is trying to alienate the father.
Judges need to be made aware of the elements of financial abuse in coercive control so that they can recognize and address it to better protect victims and their children. Spousal and child support orders should be granted at the same time as protection orders, and courts should order enforcement mechanisms such as wage garnishment as soon as reasonably possible. Assets, if any, must be temporarily frozen by a restraining order so that neither spouse can transfer or move money or property. Victim services staff should be expanded to include social workers trained in financial issues who can help women find hidden assets, manage their money and, if necessary, find housing.