Financial Abuse in Divorce Cases: What It Is and Why It Matters
by Kevin Segler as published in Texas Lawyer
Family violence is rarely just physical abuse. It almost always involves a combination of other types of abuse (verbal, emotional, sexual), resulting in a dynamic of coercive control. Coercive control is a pattern of behavior in which the abuser seeks to maintain power and control in the relationship through various forms of manipulation, intimidation and punishment. One type of abuse often begets another in a vicious cycle that ultimately results in the survivor feeling powerless and trapped in the relationship.
What is financial abuse?
Each type of abuse plays its own role in shifting the power and control to the abuser. Physical abuse can be used to show that noncompliance with an abuser’s authority will result in physical pain, which also carries the implied threat that noncompliance in the future will have similar repercussions. Verbal abuse is often used to convey the threat of physical violence, exploit the survivor’s insecurities, or threaten financial or social ruin. Emotional or psychological abuse often involves diminishing the survivor’s self-esteem, self-confidence, and/or making the survivor feel as they are somehow responsible for (and possibly deserving of) the abuse they receive.
Financial abuse is behavior that seeks control of a person’s ability to acquire, use, or maintain economic resources, and threatens their self-sufficiency and financial autonomy. (Adams, A.E., Beeble, M.L. (2018). “Intimate Partner Violence and Psychological Well-Being: Examining the effect of economic abuse on women’s quality of life.” Psychology of Violence.)
Often the abuser conceals financial information and limits access to finances so that, even if the survivor wanted to leave the abusive relationship, they are trapped in the relationship because they are financially unable to survive outside of the relationship. Some studies have found that approximately 75% of abuse survivors stay with their abusers for economic reasons.
What does financial abuse look like?
Financial abuse can take many forms. Some methods of financial abuse are quite subtle and, perhaps in a non-abusive situation, may appear to be part of a normal arrangement for how couples handle their finances. Other methods of financial abuse are much more obvious. As with other forms of abuse, during a relationship, it is common for the abuser’s behaviors to become more manipulative and escalate with time. Some of the methods of financial abuse include:
- Demanding that the survivor not work
- Demanding that the survivor not obtain or finish their education or other types of professional training
- Taking actions to prohibit or inhibit the survivor from obtaining employment or maintaining employment (many survivors miss work and/or ultimately lose their jobs due to physical or sexual abuse)
- Not allowing the survivor to have their own bank account
- Not allowing the survivor access to any financial information
- Taking the survivor’s paycheck and depositing it in their account and denying the survivor access to it
- Requiring the survivor to ask for specific amounts of money whenever it is needed and an explanation of what it will be used for and/or requiring receipts to be produced to support the amount expended
- Taking out credit in the survivor’s name only and racking up debt in the survivor’s name only (often with the survivor being unaware that it exists)
- Racking up debt on joint credit cards
- Refusing (or threatening to refuse) to pay for necessities for the survivor and/or the children
- Not paying bills in the survivor’s name or taking other actions to decrease the survivor’s credit score (while usually keeping their credit score pristine)
- Convincing the survivor to allow them to manage any property or inheritance the survivor receives
- Refusing to allow the survivor to pay any of the household bills
- Hiding assets
- Threatening that if the survivor ever files for divorce they will get nothing and be broke and living on the street (or something to that effect)
- Falsely accusing the survivor of overspending when the expenditures are either minor or necessary family expense
- Monitoring the survivor’s spending online and scrutinizing any charge at any location
How does Financial Abuse Impact a Divorce Case?
First, in any divorce case involving a survivor of abuse, it is imperative to be empathic and attempt to understand (a) all they have survived and endured up to that point; (b) how much they have had to overcome to simply get to the point of taking any step to get out of the relationship; and (c) how skewed or altered their version of the future could look based on their history.
Second, once the survivor is at the point of filing for divorce, it might be the first or tenth time they have taken steps to try to leave the relationship and it may be the furthest they have ever made it in any attempt to escape. It is not uncommon for the fear of financial ramifications (or perceived ramifications) of a divorce or the divorce process to cause the survivor to reconcile with their abuser prior to the divorce being finalized. The power/control dynamic between the abuser and survivor is incredibly powerful and in times of high stress, even a highly motivated survivor, may revert to old patterns and return to their abuser.
Third, financial abuse can be impeded or perpetuated during the course of the divorce process. It is important that the survivor obtain appropriate relief on a temporary orders basis that fosters financial independence. Obtaining orders that give a financially abused spouse independent access to funds to live on, access to funds to pay a lawyer, and the ability to acquire financial information is really giving the abused spouse a fair trial and the opportunity to get a just and right result.
Finally, a survivor should also have the assistance of an independent counselor and the ability to consult with a financial advisor during a divorce. The divorce process for someone who has been controlled by finances, can be especially anxiety-provoking and having a professional support system is crucial to their recovery. These resources can aid the survivor in coping with their feelings, reestablishing self-confidence and building their financial knowledge for the future.
Kevin Segler is board-certified family law attorney with KoonsFuller, PC. He can be reached at Kevin@koonsfuller.com.