My client knew that it was time to end her marriage, and she was terrified. She had no idea how much money they had, and more importantly – no access to it.
She had a debit card, but it was always low on funds. More than once, she had to call her spouse from the grocery checkout line after her debit card was denied. It was beyond embarrassing.
It trapped her in a marriage she no longer wanted, because she didn’t know how much money was in all of the accounts, how deeply they were in debt, or even how much money her spouse made.
How could she financially plan for single motherhood without knowing whether she could feed her children?
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. As a divorce attorney, I have heard countless different versions of this story.
A story of financial abuse that traps people in marriages and relationships because they don’t know how they’ll feed, clothe, and house their children if they don’t know their co-parent’s income or even the assets and debts in their name.
The good news is that there are small, concrete steps you can take to leave financial abuse in the past. The first step is to gather information about your finances. The second step is to start carving out your new financial life.
If you are afraid of your partner and they are monitoring your computer, email, phone, or your comings and goings, please take care to stay safe. Only use those methods that you feel will not put you in danger.
For tips on keeping your online activities away from prying eyes, check out Internet and Computer Safety from an unmonitored computer or call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) and speak to an advocate who can help.
Knowledge is Power: How to access your financial information
There's so much to know about our financial lives:
- What we own (our assets), including what’s in the bank, our home, our car, etc.
- What we owe (our debts) from student loans to car loans to credit cards and mortgages
- How much we spend to live (our expenses)
- How much we earn (our income)
Here’s a quick primer on what you can do to get your entire financial picture.
Your Credit Report
This will give you a complete picture of all of your outstanding debts and your credit accounts. Request a copy from AnnualCreditReport.com and download a PDF of your report.
This is the only free service that will provide you a copy from all three credit reporting agencies if you request them. (You can also request to have a copy of your report sent in the mail to you. But it has to be mailed to your current address – so only choose this option if you feel it doesn’t put you at risk to receive it at your home.)
Your Bank Accounts
Any bank account you have jointly with your partner can be accessed online with your own username and password. You don’t need to share online access with your partner.
Once you have access, download as many monthly statements as you can and store them safely on a USB or print them out and store them in a safe place.
Alternatively, go to a brick-and-mortar branch of your bank and request copies of your latest monthly statements.
If you’re married to a financially abusive partner, it’s likely that there is a tax issue that worries you.
I have spoken to people whose spouse hasn’t filed taxes in years, whose spouse underreported their income and was assessed an overwhelming tax penalty, and whose spouse underreported my client’s income.
A latent tax problem can be debilitating, but there is hope in the form of tax relief. But first, you need to know how bad it really is.
If you get copies of your tax returns or your tax transcripts, you’ll find out when the last time your taxes were filed, and what the income reported was.
Here are a few ways to get your tax information without your partner knowing:
- Ask your tax preparer – you are their client too, not just your spouse.
- Request copies of your tax returns from the IRS. For $50 each, you can get up to 6 years of tax returns by filling out IRS Form 4506. It should take about 75 days to get your copies.
- Request a tax account transcript from the IRS. This free option will summarize most items from your last three tax returns, including whether any changes were made and how payments were made. You can order by mail (IRS form 4506-T or 4506T-EZ), by phone (800-908-9946), or at www.IRS.gov. Delivery times vary, from 5 to 30 days, depending on which method you use to order the transcripts.
Not only does gathering financial information get you closer to getting control of your money, but it will also help you establish confidence in yourself and your abilities to manage your finances.
Many times, abuse – be it financial, physical, or otherwise – involves emotional abuse that breaks down a person’s confidence in her own abilities.
A financial professional once told me that her ex was so good at gaslighting her, she actually believed she didn’t know how to manage the family’s personal finances. A financial professional. Financial abuse can be insidious.
Now that You Know: Carve out your own financial life
If you’re looking for a way to start managing your own finances, it’s time to take some steps that may feel like “financial infidelity.”
I’m about to suggest that you open accounts without your partner’s knowledge. As long as you intend to disclose these accounts during the legal divorce or custody process, it’s OK.
You’re putting aside money and establishing your credit in order to help you transition into separation and/or divorce. If you’re keeping these actions a secret for your safety, then your secret is justified by your need to have an exit plan.
Again, only choose the actions that don’t put you at risk. Some of these may require assistance from a loved one.
If you have trusted friends or family who want to help, they will probably be glad to let you use their address to receive bank or credit card statements.
Change Your Passwords
If you can lock down any online accounts safely, now is the time.
When an intimate partner is financially abusive, they likely know all of your passwords and all of your obvious choices for passwords. Try to be creative or use a random password generator to create a strong password.
Create a Secure Email
If you can safely do so, create a new email account where you can get financial information. This will help you stay on top of your financial life, apply for jobs, inquire about housing opportunities, and more.
If you need a backup email in the event you’re locked out, ask a friend if you can list their email address.
Open A New Bank Account
Keep this account in your name only. If you can’t receive statements at your home address, ask a trusted friend if you can use their address.
This will be a safe place to start squirreling away cash when you have a chance. When you’re ready to separate your finances, you can redirect your paycheck or other income into this account.
Open A New Credit Card
Again, keep this account in your name only and use a safe address. The purpose of opening a credit card is to give you access to “emergency credit.”
When you don’t have money for an emergency fund, the next best thing for emergencies is to have access to emergency credit.
If you would like to increase your credit score, charge a few small purchases on this card each month and pay off the balance in full each month.
Be An Authorized User on a Friend’s Credit Card
If you found some unpleasant surprises on your credit report and want to increase your credit score, ask a friend with good credit to add you as an authorized user to a credit card.
You don’t even need to obtain the physical card or use the credit card. You just need to piggyback on your friend’s good credit for a few months, which will give your credit a boost. (Your friend may also get a small bonus from her credit card, for adding an authorized user, but that varies with the credit card.)
Close Joint Credit Cards with $0 Balance
I hear many variations on the problem of joint credit cards in the hands of an abusive partner.
Maybe he runs up debt to be vindictive; maybe he buys a boat, or maybe he gets a cash advance to loan a friend money. Whatever the scenario, it’s easy for him to leave you holding the bag if you’re on the account.
If you have joint credit cards with your abusive partner, and any of them have a zero balance, close them as soon as possible.
Yes, your credit score will go down a blip if you close credit accounts that have been open for years. But, you’ll have to close them after a divorce anyway. This is where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Sign up for a Credit Monitoring Service
There are free, reliable credit monitoring services that will tell you to watch your credit score and give you tips for increasing your credit score too.
Check out this helpful overview of free options. It may also help alert you if someone opens new credit in your name. And it will definitely give you some confidence boosts when you’re able to increase your score.
You’re on Your Way
Whether you take one of these steps, all of them, or any number in between, you will be closer to being free of financial control. It’s truly incredible what the simple act of gathering knowledge can do for your ability to take control of your finances.
Remember that you'll have to disclose these accounts during the divorce process. But starting them now will give you peace of mind when going down that road.
There’s a long journey ahead of you, but the sooner you start, the sooner you'll be able to gain control of your finances and determine your own financial future.
Article written by guest contributor Rebecca G. Neale.
Rebecca G. Neale is a divorce and probate attorney in Massachusetts. She helps people through some of the most difficult times of their lives and is a frequent speaker on issues of domestic violence and financial abuse. You can find her at www.bedfordfamilylawyer.com/blog and download a free worksheet to help you get all of your financial information in one place. You can also find Rebecca on Twitter and Facebook.