12 Steps to Protect Your Finances When Leaving an Abusive Relationship

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Note: This article doesn’t contain any depiction of physical or sexual violence, but does detail financial and emotional abuse in relationships.

Lisa Orban was married to her abuser for three years. In 1990, she left after he threatened to kill her and their two young children.

She was 20 years old.

Her financial situation in the marriage? “Bad, in a nutshell,” she recalled.

Her husband was the main breadwinner, and he managed the family’s finances.

“Whenever there was a chance that I might make enough money or make more money than him or do anything to upset his financial apple cart, so to speak, he would come in and sabotage it,” she said.

She lost multiple jobs because of his meddling.

Orban moved with him from her hometown in Illinois to Arizona for college, where she’d won a four-year scholarship to study psychology. Before she could start, he contacted the university and told them she’d decided to drop out.

“Imagine my surprise when I go to registration day and find out that my scholarship is gone,” she said.

He even had control of the mailbox. He took her key, though she thought she’d just lost it, and put off replacing it. That had major, unexpected financial ramifications.

“It wasn’t until after we were divorced that I found out that I had not paid off my student loan,” she said. The $4,000 loan ultimately cost her $38,000 to repay.

The checks Orban thought were going into the mail were not, and the missed payment notices from her loan providers weren’t getting to her.

He kept control of the checking account.

He wouldn’t let her use the car alone.

He knew how much money she earned, and he would accompany her to the bank to deposit her paychecks.

He signed up for credit cards in her name.

By the time Orban left and filed for divorce, she was $80,000 in debt and didn’t even know it.

What Is Financial Abuse?

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About 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men will experience severe intimate partner violence in their lifetime, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

Domestic violence and abuse come in many forms, whether that’s physical, emotional, psychological or sexual — but it can also be financial. Likely, it’s some mix of these, but not always all of them.

Of those who experience violence, 94 to 99% also experience financial abuse, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“Like all abuse, financial abuse takes a lot of forms, but it’s all controlling behavior — power and control,” said Casey Harden, General Secretary of World YWCA. “Imagine tightening the reins on the financial condition of the home, so that there’s limited options.”

Abusers may leave their partner out of major decisions and purchase a home that’s well out of the family’s budget, for example. They may run up credit card debt without their partner’s knowledge or input, lie about paying bills or damage valuable property.

Victims of domestic violence often stay in abusive relationships because of a lack of financial resources.

“More often than not, the abuser has made the victim feel as if they are dependent upon the abuser — that without the help of the abuser, the victim could not survive financially in the world, and it is only by the grace of the abuser that the victim has a roof over their head and food on the table,” said Michelle Kuehner, a survivor of domestic violence who is now a financial adviser and author of The Money Diet blog.

If you’re in a bad situation, consider this advice from financial, legal and domestic violence experts on how to leave an abusive relationship when you don’t have any money.

6 Steps to Prepare Your Finances Before Leaving

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“The largest hurdle you face in an abusive relationship is getting back your independence,” Kuehner said.

That’s easier said than done.

In addition to the financial hurdles, the most dangerous time for an abused partner is the moment he or she decides to leave.

That’s why before you do anything, we recommend this step:

1. Connect With a Victim Advocate

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These people are trained and experienced, so they know how to help you plan to leave safely and quietly. They can point out potential pitfalls and let you know what major financial hurdles to expect.

How to get in touch with local advocates:

You’re the best at assessing your own safety, so listen to your own instincts, work with an advocate and only consider these steps when you feel it’s safe.

2. Save Money

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“Be sure you have liquid funds held in an account in your name only,” said Allison Alexander, a financial adviser at Savant Capital Management. She also recommends having credit cards in your name alone.

Allstate’s financial empowerment curriculum includes advice on how to build a solid financial foundation, including places where you could find loans.

If you can’t get a loan, see if there are other ways to secure money for yourself that your partner doesn’t have access to.

Here are some creative ways to make extra money:

Keep an eye out for influxes of cash your partner doesn’t know about or have access to.

“A lot of survivors … wait until that tax return comes, and that’s a nice little chunk to get started on,” said Kim Pentico, director of the Economic Justice Program at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

A bonus at work may be a similar lifeline.

You may be able to work with the human resources department at work to automatically deposit part of your paycheck into a separate bank account.

Catherine Scrivano, a Phoenix–based financial planner, says HR may also be able to help you make an adjustment to your tax withholding to help you receive more money with each paycheck that you can save or invest throughout the year.

3. Make Copies of Important Documents

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This includes tax returns, bank statements, investment statements, mortgage or loan information, car titles and pay stubs.

You can simply snap a picture of these documents with your phone and email it to a friend. Or store them in a cloud drive that you — and only you — can access from anywhere, like Google Drive.

4. Cut Ties and Open a New Bank Account

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Before opening your own account, Harden recommends obtaining a new mailing address, such as a post office box, and an email address your partner doesn’t know about.

Harden also suggests you contact your bank to update your account’s security questions if your partner has access to an account in your name.

“Your husband of 10, 15 years probably knows the answers to most of your security questions,” she said, “especially if he’s been actively working to know them.”

You can tell your bank the question you want to use. You don’t have to stick with a default question your partner might know the answer to.

If you can, set up separate accounts your partner doesn’t know about, or at least can’t access.

Also, “remove your personal items from a safe deposit box if it is held jointly,” Alexander said. “Establish your own safe deposit box at another bank and place your financial documents and sentimental items, including jewelry, pictures (or) valuables there.”

5. Find a Financial Adviser

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If you have the resources to hire a professional financial adviser — who works for you alone, not you and your partner together — great.

If you can’t afford to work with a professional, utilize your local library or domestic abuse support organization. It may have financial literacy classes, support groups and literature to help you.

Even financially savvy friends and family can offer advice.

Pentico often tells survivors, “There’s somebody in your life, more than likely, that seems to know what’s going on when it comes to money and finances, whether it’s a coworker or a family member. Reach out to them.”

6. Find an Attorney

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If you are planning to file for divorce, or if you think your partner is planning to file, seek out the help of a lawyer as soon as possible.

If you don’t have money to hire a lawyer or don’t feel safe, a victim advocate can help you find resources.

6 Steps to Rebuild Your Finances After Leaving

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Orban didn’t make a plan to leave her abuser. She did what many survivors do: run blindly for their lives.

“They look for a moment — a credit card left unattended, a check that unexpectedly arrives that you somehow got access to, a Christmas bonus from your work that your spouse doesn’t know about,” she says. “These are things you look at, and you go, ‘This is it. This is my chance.'”

And then what?

Once you’ve left and you’re safe, your greatest financial hurdle may be not knowing what you’re working with.

Start by figuring that out.

1. Get a Copy of Your Credit Report

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If you haven’t had control of your finances for years, you may have no idea what state they’re in. To create a rebuilding plan, you have to first know what you’re dealing with by reviewing your credit report.

Do you have credit card debt?

Is an unpaid mortgage in your name?

Are you behind on medical bills?

Your credit report will give you this information.

Here’s how to get a free copy of your credit report:

Contact the three major credit reporting bureaus to get a free copy from each. They’re legally required to give you a free credit report once every 12 months, but since the pandemic, all three are offering free weekly credit reports.

To check out your free reports, start at annualcreditreport.com. A banner, front and center, tells you about the new policy with a “request your free credit reports” button.

Your credit history can affect a lot of what you do from now on.

Someone will likely pull it when you apply for an apartment, mortgage, vehicle loan or credit cards, before hiring you for a job or opening a new bank account. It will affect how much you pay to rent a car or get a new cell phone. It could even affect your car insurance rates.

Once you know what’s in your credit history, you can figure out how to fix it.

2. Identify and Work to Pay Off Lingering Debts

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Your credit report will show you all the creditors you owe. Reach out to them directly and ask what you need to do to eliminate those debts.

Scrivano pointed out that a divorce agreement isn’t enough to get you out of debts you shared with your partner. For example, even if the agreement says credit card debt is your ex’s responsibility, the creditor doesn’t know — or care.

Contact your creditors to determine exactly what needs to be done — and what, in the end, is your responsibility.

To prevent your ex from building new debt in your name, you can place a 90-day fraud alert with the major credit bureaus. That way, businesses must verify your identity before issuing credit in your name.

Here’s how to initiate a fraud alert with one of the bureaus:

3. Create a New Budget

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Next, Harden said, spend time “learning to budget in the new reality, whatever that new reality is.”

You can set up new savings and investing plans to “become proactive about having full ownership over (your) finances,” not just reactive to your situation.

Orban learned to manage her budget through trial and error. She always kept a detailed budget.

“I ended up itemizing my life on a day-to-day basis and seeing how much I had coming in and how much, realistically, I had to pay out to function in a normal way,” she said.

Read our tips on how to budget if you’ve never done it before:

4. Rebuild Your Credit

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Even if you have damaged credit, you’re not doomed.

“Since my credit had been damaged a bit, I wanted to rebuild that as well,” Kuehner says. “Taking out secured loans … was the easiest way I knew. Within a year and a half my credit had been repaired.”

Start by taking out a secured loan or opening a secured credit card.

It’s similar to a debit card: You put down a cash deposit and can use that amount in credit.

Unlike a debit card, secured cards report your payments and balance to credit bureaus. So it’s a way to establish a credit history if yours is shot or nonexistent.

Read more tips for rebuilding your credit:

5. If You Need to, Find a New Job and Housing

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If your abuser didn’t allow you to keep a job, the effect can ripple beyond your lack of control in the relationship.

“It could interrupt a work history,” Harden said.

If you’ve lost your job or you’ve been out of work for a while, you have options.

Find a bridge job or seasonal job, or pick up a side gig. These may not become your long-term career, but they’ll get some money coming in.

“Your local domestic-violence program has relationships with community resources, so while they may not provide (job placement) themselves, they certainly have built partnerships and relationships with those who do, so reach out to them,” Pentico said.

Community colleges can also be a great resource for job placement.

If you’re able to live with friends or family to cut expenses and save for a while, go for it.

Once you’re ready to find your own place, here are some tips for getting the best deal out of your next rental.

6. Prepare for Financial Success

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The final step is refocusing on financial vitality, Harden said.

What does a thriving, successful life look like for you? Is there a business you need to reclaim, a career you need to start over or education you need to finish?

Focusing on financial independence will take you from reacting to a bad situation to being proactive about your own success.

And remember, you don’t have to go through it again.

“Being in a relationship, regardless if married or not, does not mean you have to commingle all funds,” Kuehner said.

Early on, negotiate a split of resources and financial responsibilities that satisfies and respects both of your needs.

Starting Over

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Orban is now retired and has written about her experiences.

Her book, “It’ll Feel Better When It Quits Hurting,” is a memoir of her life before leaving her ex-husband.

Healing emotionally and financially took a lot of time and work. But a small epiphany late one night made her realize she could do it.

“(I realized) I didn’t have to wait for time to heal all wounds. I could make steps and go forward and go, ‘I am in control of my life now — me — and I can make these changes.'”

If you or anyone you know needs help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline to speak with an advocate or be connected with someone in your area: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) / TTY: 1-800-787-3224.

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