Understanding if it's abuse

How can I protect myself?

According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Financial Security, financial abuse happens in 99% of domestic abuse cases.1 If you think your relationship is becoming unhealthy, there are things you can do to protect yourself from financial abuse.

Some of the financial safety tips in this module may not be safe or applicable to your situation. In those instances, we hope they provide you with thoughts and ideas for safety measures that will work for you.

For safety tips beyond finance, we recommend looking at MyPlan, which is a free app that can help you make decisions about your safety. This app is backed by over a decade of research and is designed to be a private, secure, and personalized tool for survivors.

Joint bank accounts

It is common for partners to have joint bank accounts, which means both people have full ownership and access to the account and the funds in that account. Joint accounts can make it easier to pay shared expenses like utility bills, but they also pose financial risks if your partner is abusive. For example, many harm doers will remove all funds from joint accounts so their partner loses control over their money. 

Protective steps:

  • If you don’t have a joint account already, know that you do not have to agree to open one. Many couples keep their money in separate accounts that only they can access
  • If you already have a joint account, reduce the amount of money you deposit into the account as much as safely possible. Know that you are not obligated to put funds into the account 
  • If you are worried about your harm doer emptying the account without your permission, you can ask your financial institution to freeze the account. Neither your nor your partner will be able to take money out of the account once it has been frozen. The rules for freezing a joint account vary by bank. But generally, you can freeze the account by contacting your bank, providing the account number, and answering identifying questions. When contacting your bank, consider asking if any single account holder can lift the freeze or if all account holders must sign off

Personal accounts

You may have personal accounts with financial institutions such as banks, lenders, and insurance companies. If your harm doer is able to access these accounts, they may have the ability to defraud you, illegally taking possession of your money. 

Protective steps:

  • Make sure no one else knows your PIN numbers and online passwords. If you suspect your harm doer knows your PIN numbers or passwords, consider changing them
  • Many financial institutions will allow you to set up a “safe word” that needs to be shared before anyone can access your account. Consider calling your financial institutions to set up this extra level of security for your accounts 
  • If you are opening a new account, consider choosing a financial institution where you have no joint accounts with your harm doer. Financial institutions are not legally allowed to share any of your personal information with third parties. However, a banker could accidently share information about your personal account with your harm doer if they see you share a joint account with that person

Credit

A common form of financial abuse is coerced debt, in which a harm doer takes out debt in their partner’s name without that person's knowledge, or under force or threat. Coerced debt can be difficult to resolve with credit companies or in a court of law, which makes protective measures all the more important.  

Protective steps:

  • Consider setting up credit alerts. A credit alert notifies lenders like credit card companies that your identity may have been stolen. This may make it harder for your harm doer to take debt out in your name without your consent. If you decide to set up alerts, be sure to do so with the three main credit bureaus in the US: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax
  • If possible, do not lend your credit card to others and keep credit card information private. When you grant someone permission to use your credit card, you may become responsible for any charges made even if you did not approve a specific purchase. If you need to lend your credit card to someone, try to create a written record of how much that person is allowed to spend and/or what type of purchases they are allowed to make. A quick text can count as a written record 
  • Try to avoid adding your harm doer as an authorized user to your credit cards. When adding someone as an authorized user, they will be able to make charges on your card. However, you will be fully responsible for paying all charges

Taxes

If you are married to your harm doer and file joint taxes, you share responsibility for the accuracy of your tax filing, which can put you at risk if your spouse fails to report income or lies on the filing. Know it is your right to:

  • File a separate return even if you’re married
  • See and understand the entire tax return (including supporting documentation) before signing a joint return
  • Refuse to sign a joint return
  • Get copies of prior tax returns from the IRS
  • Request relief from your spouse’s liability
  • Obtain independent legal advice2

Additional protections

  • Do not sign financial documents or agreements you don’t understand. Seek the advice of a trusted friend or lawyer
  • Keep financial records in a safe place. Consider leaving copies with a trusted friend, family member, or in a bank safety deposit box
  • Keep copies of house and car keys, extra money, and emergency contact information in a safe place

Sources:

  1. Adams AE. Measuring the Effects of Domestic Violence on Women’s Financial Well- Being. Center for Financial Security. University of Wisconsin-Madison. 2011.
  2. Tax Information for Survivors of Domestic abuse. Publication 3865 (Rev. 10-2017)  Catalog Number 32346J  Department of the Treasury  Internal Revenue Services.
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