In June 1976, a woman wearing dark sunglasses and a blood-stained white suit checked into a Ramada Inn in Texas with nothing but, as she described, “36 cents and a gas station credit card.” That woman was Tina Turner, whose abusive relationship with Ike Turner has been well-documented. What has been less detailed is the financial mess Tina Turner endured after the divorce. She had no access to the couple’s money, was left with substantial debt, and had to collect food stamps for nearly two years after her divorce.
Research into domestic violence and relationship abuse has expanded dramatically in the last few decades, and education has ramped up to teach younger individuals to recognize the warning signs of physical and emotional abuse. There is another major way that abusers hurt their victims that is not discussed as often, and that is financial abuse.
Financial abuse often goes hand in hand with other types of abuse. A review done by the London Metropolitan University found that many domestic abuse victims were also subjected to financial restriction by the abusive partner. The review also found that financial abuse is very likely to exist “within a pattern” of other types of abuse, including physical, emotional, and sexual.
There are three different types of financial abuse commonly employed by abusive partners. The first is exercising complete control over the finances. Divorce attorneys encounter this behavior often. It is not abnormal for one individual in a relationship to “take the lead” as far as paying bills, investments, or other financial activities. The behavior becomes problematic, however, when the abusive partner actively deprives the victim of important information.
In practice, financial control can take a couple of different forms. One possible scenario is if the parties have a joint bank account and the abusive partner denies the victim login information or other ways to access the account. Another scenario is the abusive partner demanding the victim hand over all his or her income to the abusive partner, then denying access to funds.
The second type of financial abuse is financial exploitation, which is a growing problem. This occurs when the abusive partner uses the victim to generate financial resources, creating debt. Most often (but not always) this is seen in the context of a male partner incurring debt on behalf of a female partner, which is a fairly recent phenomenon because women have only had individual access to credit in the United States since the mid-1970’s.
Financial exploitation can have extremely long and complicated ramifications for victims. Through creating debt in a partner’s name, an abuser can attempt to prevent a victim from leaving by destroying their victim’s credit, rendering them unable to, for example, qualify for a lease or mortgage on a new home.
“Coercive debt” is the term for any non-consensual, credit-related transactions and can take several different forms. The abuser may simply apply for credit fraudulently and without the victim’s knowledge at all, applying for credit cards online, forging signatures, or recruiting other friends or family members to “pose” as the victim to obtain credit.
Additionally, abusers may use force or the threat of force or violence to induce a victim to sign financial documents against his or her will. Abusers can also lie and use other misinformation tactics to coerce the victim into signing financial documents he or she does not understand.
In the 1980’s, the US Woman and Credit Task Force coined the term “sexually transmitted debt,” which occurs in the context of marriage when an abuser borrows money with the knowledge that the debt will be a community debt and the victim will be responsible for half. Sometimes abusers steal money that has been earmarked for bills, or lie about paying the bills, so that victims are forced into debt. Stealing things, pawning valuable items, and destroying property are other ways victims can be forced into debt – for example, if an abuser damages a victim’s vehicle so he or she can’t leave, or if an abuser damages the parties’ home in an angry rage, leaving the victim to incur the cost of repairs.
Financial exploitation can also take the form of benefit fraud, such as coercing the victim into fraudulently collecting government benefits. When the victim has access to income, some abusers simply refuse to contribute to household expenses and in effort to lessen the victim’s financial well-being and essentially “trap” him or her in the relationship. Some research has shown that not only do some abusers refuse to contribute, they often spend their partner’s money, leaving them without enough to pay basic living expenses.
Finally, financial abuse can take the form of financial sabotage, which occurs when the abuser actively seeks to prevent the victim from acquiring a regular or increased income. Sometimes this takes the form of preventing the victim from obtaining employment, often by inflicting visible injuries, turning off the alarm clock, or refusing to provide transportation or childcare so the victim cannot attend interviews.
Abusers also sometimes seek to prevent a victim from keeping a job or doing things that will cause the victim to lose his or her job. This can take the form of sabotaging a vehicle, physical restraint, stealing car keys, withholding medication, preventing sleep, hiding clothing or other necessities, and harassing the victim during work hours, either in person or telephonically.
Unlike physical abuse, financial abuse does not require physical proximity between the abuser and the victim. This means the behavior can continue and sometimes even escalate after the victim leaves the relationship. The consequences of financial abuse are serious. The purpose of financial abuse is to create financial dependence on the abuser and to create barriers for the victim to leaving. A victim can be left with no assets, no personal possessions, and difficulty accessing credit. He or she may, as a result, lack access to affordable housing.
One of the direst consequences of financial abuse is the long-term effect on the victim’s credit. Women who file for bankruptcy are much more likely to have experienced abuse than the general population. It often takes a victim years to fix his or her credit report, and even then it often requires police intervention. Law enforcement are sometimes hesitant to take a report, especially when the victim is married to the abuser.
Instances of financial abuse are increasing, and with technology it is becoming easier for abusers to fraudulently obtain credit on behalf of a partner, particularly when the abuser has access to a victim’s social security number and other identifying information. It is never a bad idea, no matter one’s marital or relationship status, to keep a close eye on one’s credit report and utilize a fraud detection service. If you have been the victim of financial abuse, an experienced attorney can advise you of your options and best course of action moving forward.