When you begin planning to leave your abusive partner, money will likely be a major concern. Your partner might be financially abusing you by controlling the household finances, not allowing you to work, or forcing you to work and taking your money, using your credit or any one of these 16 forms of financial abuse.
It might seem daunting, but there are ways you can keep your assets safe and accessible in the future. Everything from bank accounts, retirement funds, insurance and investments to your credit cards, property and vehicles should be considered, if there’s time, before you make the final move to separate. Suffice it to say, these steps should only be taken if it’s safe to do so, that is, if you can do them without raising the suspicion of your abuser or putting yourself in added danger.
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Here are five things survivors can focus on that will ultimately help out financially in the long-run:
- Gather Documents. Try to ensure you have access to shared accounts. Compile PIN codes, passwords, copies of credit reports, print-outs of any financial records or bank accounts, birth certificates for yourself and your children, your driver’s license, your Social Security number and tax records. “It can be hard to get everything,” says Mary J. Schultz, project manager of underserved communities for the National Endowment for Financial Education. “But if you have portions of this information in place you can piece together the stuff that is missing. You can contact the IRS for copies of jointly filed tax returns from previous years, and contact banks for copies of jointly held account statements.
- Set Up Your Own Accounts. If you feel you can set up accounts safely (i.e., secretly), open a bank account in your name and have the statements delivered electronically to a friend or family member’s address, or a P.O. box your abuser does not know about. “You need to start your own credit life so you’re not so dependent on your partner,” Schultz points out. A community bank or credit union may offer a credit card that’s tied to your checking account so you can start to build a credit history. Once you leave the relationship you need to be prepared for the possibility of losing a good credit history if your abuser resorts to financial abuse, which can include becoming delinquent on paying shared bills or overdrawing a joint checking account for the specific purpose of trying to ruin your credit.
- Accumulate cash reserves. You’re going to need money when you leave so, if possible, stash away some cash in a safe place other than a bank—think hiding it at a trusted friend or family member’s house, at your place of employment or in a safe deposit box your abuser doesn’t know about.
- Change Beneficiaries on Your Accounts. For individual insurance plans (such as health or life insurance you hold through your job) and accounts such as a 401k retirement account through your place of employment, you should change your beneficiary to someone other than the abuser. For jointly held policies and accounts, both parties will need to be privy to the information if the beneficiary is changed, so it’s better to speak to a lawyer about how best to handle that. You should be able to find free lay legal counsel through your local domestic violence nonprofit.
- Make a Budget. Planning out your finances ahead of time can save you a lot of worry when it is time to go. Figure out how much you’ll need to live on when you’re on your own by listing out all possible expenses, and then compare that to all sources of income and make cuts where needed.
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After You Leave
You’ll likely want to hide your financial activity from your abuser after you leave. For accounts and credit cards that are yours and yours alone, change your PINs so no one else can access them. And if you’ve opened an individual savings account, put your assets there so the abuser can’t access them. You may also want to see if your state offers the Address Confidentiality Program.
As you start to rebuild your life after leaving a crisis situation, you’ll also want to build your credit. In a recent DomesticShelters survey asking survivors to name the biggest financial hurdle they faced after leaving an abuser, 52 percent responded they had to repair their credit history ruined by an abuser.
“Pay your rent on time. Pay everything on time,” Schultz says. “Building your credit is slow and tedious. No company can do it for you—you have to do it yourself.” Find 8 more ways to rebuild your credit here.
Money tight? Read about five ways to begin building up your bank account in “ Finding Your Financial Footing After Abuse.”
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