To protect your financial health, try to separate your finances from your harm doer’s as soon as safely possible. In high-stress situations like break-ups, emotions can be volatile, and separating your finances can help protect you from escalating financial abuse and retaliation.
Where to start
First, create a list of all the financial accounts and obligations you share with your harm doer. Common examples include:
- Joint bank accounts
- Joint credit cards
- Leases and mortgages
- Different types of insurance
For each of these accounts and obligations, you’ll want to determine who is legally responsible for it - you, your harm doer, or both of you.
For accounts and obligations that are your sole responsibility, it is prudent to restrict your harm doer’s access to them so they can’t use them to sabotage your finances.
For accounts with shared responsibility, determine if it is possible to remove yourself from the account or to close the account altogether.
Joint bank accounts
- Have a personal bank account ready to go. Consider how you would like to access banking services once your joint account is closed. Do you have a personal account you plan to use? Will you need to open a new account? Knowing where you plan to bank will make the process of closing a joint account easier.
- Understand if closing or freezing the account is safer for you. Ask your bank or credit union if they require your harm doer to be present to close the account. If their presence is required, it may be safer for you to explore freezing the account instead of closing it. Freezing the account will prevent both you and your harm doer from adding or removing funds from the account.
- Determine how to split funds. Legal advisors commonly suggest splitting shared funds 50-50. However, this may not be a fair split for your unique situation, especially if you have been experiencing financial abuse. Before agreeing to a split with your harm doer, consider speaking to a legal advisor.
- Cancel automatic debits and deposits. Before closing a joint bank account make sure you’ve canceled any automatic payments, as you will be responsible for paying any fees for payments that post after the account has been closed. The same goes for deposits, because if a bank receives a deposit for a closed account, it might reopen the account and start charging fees on that account.
Joint credit cards
- Determine who is responsible for remaining balances: For most joint credit cards, you can unilaterally close the account by contacting the card issuer. However, the card issuer will require you and/or your harm doer to pay off the balance before closing the accounts. If you and your harm doer are unable to reach an agreement on who is responsible for the remaining balance, you have the options of assuming full responsibility or going to mediation or court. If you are contemplating mediation or court, we suggest contacting an advocate in your area to get support connecting to legal resources and to discuss safety considerations.
- Consider balance transfers: If you don’t have the means to pay off your portion of the remaining balance, one option is to transfer the remaining balance to a balance transfer credit card that is in your name alone. These cards are attractive because they allow you to maintain a credit balance at low or even 0% interest rates, usually for one year, before interest rates are applied to your balance.
- Redeem rewards. If your joint credit card earns any types of rewards, such as cash back, try to redeem those awards before you close the account. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t, or your harm doer won’t agree to it. This will not affect your credit in any way; it’s just a nice bonus during a rough time to get a little cash back from your purchases.
- Close the account. Once the card is paid off, call the credit card company to let them know you are closing your joint card account. Ask the company if you have met all requirements so you won’t have any unpleasant surprises down the road. Be sure to keep any paperwork the company sends you affirming account closure.
- Verify closure. Once the joint card account is closed, you can check your credit report to make sure that it is no longer listed as an active card.
Know your rights. The first step is to know your rights. The IRS publication “Tax Information for Survivors of Domestic Abuse” states that you have the 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 years’ tax returns from the IRS
- Request relief from you spouse’s liability
- Obtain independent legal advice
Determine if you need to file. Not everyone is required to file an annual tax return with the IRS. To determine if you need to file, review the IRS filing criteria. Even if not required, there are many benefits to filing a tax return, including:
- Receiving money back
- Protecting your credit by avoiding a federal tax lien
- Being eligible for financial aid for higher education
- Earning credits to qualify for social security benefits
Choose your filing status. If you are married to your harm doer, you can file a tax return as “Married Filing Separately.” When you file separately, you will be responsible for the accuracy of your tax return, but not that of your spouse. If you suspect your spouse might lie on their tax return, filing separately can protect you from tax liabilities and penalties.
Check if your state has an address confidentiality program. If you are concerned about your harm doer discovering your address from your tax return, an address confidentiality program could help you stay safe. Address confidentiality programs are run at the state level and provide survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and human trafficking with a substitute address.
Find out if you are eligible for special tax relief. If you signed a joint tax return without fully knowing or understanding its content, you may be eligible for special forms of tax relief. These might include include:
- Innocent spouse relief: reduces or eliminates a spouse’s liability on a joint return in certain cases.
- Injured spouse relief: releases a spouse from liability for certain past-due tax debts that are attributable to the other spouse.
- Separation of liability: divides tax liability based on ability to pay for spouses who are legally separated or no longer married.
- Equitable relief: divides tax liability based on the adjusted gross income of each spouse, but does not clear either spouse of the total liability.
- Reasonable cause relief: provides clearance from the obligation to file a tax return or pay penalties if you can present compelling facts to show why you were unable to do so on time.1
Get support. Taxes can be really complicated. If you are feeling overwhelmed or unsure, consider contacting a financial counselor or domestic violence advocate for personalized support making tax decisions, preparing filings, and submitting tax relief if applicable.
Leases and mortgages
Housing rights vary from state to state. To understand yours, we recommend WomensLaw’s “Know the Laws - By State” resource, where you can read about housing laws in your area. For most states, this resource contains answers to questions such as:
- Can I get out of my lease early?
- Can I get my locks changed?
- Can my landlord refuse to renew my lease or evict me?
- Can I stay on my lease and have my harm doer removed?
- When you leave, if you are taking a vehicle with you, plan to get separate auto insurance coverage as soon as it’s practical
- Look into proper health insurance for yourself and your dependents. If you need support, an advocate can help you explore public and private options. The period to sign up for health insurance is in November, but there are types of insurance you can buy to tide you over until November
- If you have a life insurance policy, review the beneficiary information and make appropriate changes