Financial abuse in relationships: How to spot the signs and how to escape
Are you in a financially abusive relationship? Find out how to spot the signs, how to escape, and how to protect yourself when getting divorced.
Financial abuse is about using money and assets to exert control and using access to money and financial resources as a way to keep a family member, usually a partner financially dependent and vulnerable. This will often have been a pattern of the relationship, with the more financially powerful person holding all the information and making all the decisions.
Financial abuse can affect anyone, from any walk of life, and with any income level. According to the charity Surviving Economic Abuse one in six women and one in seven men have experienced economic abuseof some kind by a current or former partner.
In this article we explore five signs you may be in a financially abusive relationship, how to escape, and five legal steps to take when getting divorced.
Five signs of financial abuse
In a divorce or separation, the financially controlling partner may exert control in a number of ways. Here are five signs of financial abuse.
1) Threatening to, or withdrawing financial support
Threatening to, or withdrawing financial support is common in financially abusive relationships. For example, they may block a credit card, change and keep online banking passwords secret, transfer funds out of joint accounts to personal accounts, starving the other of funds.
2) Making you responsible for debts
Another way abusers use money to control you is by overspending and running up debts, all the while restricting how you are able to spend money. And, in anticipation of separation, they may even force you to pay off their debt or take on their liabilities in your own name.
3) Using the legal process to abuse you
An abusive partner may use the legal process to control you by causing excessive legal costs or threatening to withdraw spousal or child maintenance if you do not agree to unfavourable financial settlement terms. They may also refuse to pay for children’s private school fees or activities as a means of negotiation leverage.
4) Hiding or undervaluing assets
Another common strategy is to hide, undervalue or minimise assets which may be regarded as joint assets by a family court. An abuser may convert cash into non liquid assets as a means of disposing of capital in legitimate ways, like purchasing expensive cars or jewellery
Abusive partners often resort to gaslighting as a form of control. And in a financially abusive relationship, this can lead to name-calling and accusations of “gold digging”, or “greediness”.
And please remember: it’s not just women who experience abuse. Men can be subject to abuse, including financial control, too.
How to escape a financially abusive relationship
If you believe you are in a financially abusive relationship, how can you get out? Claire Macklin, a specialist divorce and breakup coach, shares her advice on escaping.
Create a strong support team
This is vital. You need the right professionals at the right time, for the right issues. These could include:
- A solicitor who has knowledge and experience in assisting clients who are leaving controlling relationships, and can advise you on all your options and choices at each stage, even if your ex is not engaging.
- A coach who walks beside you emotionally, empowers you to be confident and dignified, and shares strategies to enable you to stay safe, calm and clear.
- A specialist financial adviser who can give you clarity on the numbers.
Know that there is a process to follow
Many of my clients have told me that their ex has said something like, “You said you wanted to be amicable, but now you’ve instructed a solicitor. Just accept my offer. If you go down this road, it will get nasty”.
There is a process to follow when you are separating your finances on divorce. Following that process does not mean your divorce cannot be “amicable”.
Divorce is an alien world to most of us, and taking advice is fundamentally important, especially if your partner has controlled the finances in your relationship. Disclosure of your assets is part of the process.
It does not make you a gold-digger, or greedy if you request disclosure of your partner’s pension valuation. It DOES mean you will have the information you need to make clear decisions for your future.
Use your WOW brain, not your OW brain
The process of a divorce can be daunting and scary, especially if your spouse is controlling. It can feel like there is a huge mountain to climb.
Remember that you always have a choice – you can choose to look up the mountain and think, “OW, I can’t do that”, or you can choose to look down the mountain and think, “WOW, look what I have already achieved; how can I use those skills and resources to take the next step forward?”
Keep a list of all the decisions you make, the things you achieve, the things you are learning and feel proud of, however small, and go to that list whenever you need a reminder that you CAN do this. This will empower you to trust yourself, and your judgment again.
Focus on what you CAN control
When you focus on what is within your power to control, you will feel more empowered. When you focus on stuff outside your control, you are likely to feel frustrated, angry or powerless.
Sadly, you can’t control your ex, and you can’t make them behave better. What you CAN do is control your reactions and responses. You can choose when and how you respond to them. You can choose whether you respond to them. You can set boundaries for when you look at messages from them or their solicitor. You can ask your solicitor not to email you correspondence on a Friday afternoon.
And you can control your breathing. When something happens that puts you into a spin, breath in and count to five. Hold for two. Breathe out and count to seven. Repeat five times and notice what it does to your heart rate and stress levels.
Take it one step at a time
When you feel overwhelmed, breathe, and remind yourself to take it one step at a time. One task, one hour, one day at a time.
Slowly you will make progress, and when you look back in a month, six months or a year, you will see just how those steps have added up.
Five legal steps to take when divorcing a financial abuser
Vanessa Gardiner, a family solicitor and partner at RWK Goodman, provides guidance on the legal steps that can be put on place if you wish to leave or if you are in the process of divorcing a financially abusive partner.
1) Appoint a family solicitor
Consulting with a family solicitor can feel like drastic action to take and we know that making the call or sending that first email is a huge leap of faith particularly when you have a spouse or partner who is controlling.
The first meeting is as much about understanding your current legal position as it is connecting with a lawyer who makes you feel comfortable so don’t feel that you have to appoint the first solicitor you see if you don’t feel that you could work with that person.
At my firm we will spend at least one hour talking to you in an initial consultation so that we can gain an understanding of your situation, provide you with preliminary legal advice, a timeline as to what will happen next, how long it might take and provide an estimate of legal fees.
It is important to understand that your family solicitor represents only you and provides advice for your benefit only. Your relationship is private and confidential at all times. Your solicitor will guide you through every step of the process, providing advice and discussing options so that you feel well informed when you make decisions about your future and what you want to happen.
2) Consider how you will pay your legal fees
Once you decide to obtain legal advice consider how you will pay for the legal fees. If you have no savings of your own and your spouse is controlling your finances, it may be difficult for you to access joint savings but you could consider obtaining 0% credit cards and low interest loans .
Make sure you discuss this with your family solicitor because any liabilities you incur paying legal fees can be taken into account when the financial aspects of your divorce are settled. Alternatively, you could borrow from family members but, again, make sure you tell your legal advisor.
When money is very tight, litigation loans can be an option but make sure your solicitor explains the pros and cons. Finally, there can be the possibility of seeking a contribution towards your legal costs from your spouse through a Legal Fees Order.
Once you have a solicitor appointed and the means to pay for your legal fees, you will feel empowered; the knowledge that you have access to good legal advice will boost your confidence and help you make better decisions about your separation.
3) Take control of your own finances
If you have only ever had a joint account, open a new sole bank account. You can redirect your salary or sources of income to the new account preserving it for your own use. If you have your own account but are unsure if your ex partner/spouse can access it, then change online passwords and remove authority for any useage of credit cards linked to that account.
4) Obtain financial disclosure
In divorce proceedings every client is always advised to obtain full and frank financial disclosure from their ex spouse about their financial assets before they begin negotiating a settlement which will cover their needs and those of any dependent children. These assets will include income, pensions, property, business assets and investments such as those in stocks and shares. .
If your ex-spouse seeks to obstruct the financial disclosure process you must question what are they trying to hide. Someone who is being open and honest will have no reason not to disclose their assets and income voluntarily, but in my experience, financially controlling spouses are often the ones who attempt to hide assets or dispose of them to try and ensure that they are out of your reach.
If you suspect this is the case, your solicitor will be able to explain your options and help you come up with a plan.
Family solicitors have a range of Court applications available to them to help preserve assets, protect ongoing maintenance payments and to punish an ex spouse if they do not adhere to the Court Rules. If you are not married, different Court proceedings will be considered.
5) Gain financial independence
Once there has been an exchange of financial disclosure, your solicitor will then look at the overall financial situation and advise you as to what could be a reasonable financial agreement to be proposed to your ex-spouse.
This will involve deciding how to divide all assets which are considered part of the marital pot and would normally cover the family home and any other properties, pensions, savings and investments.
Ideally, we would look achieve a complete financial separation or what’s often referred to as “clean break” so that you are not tied to your spouse in any way but if this isn’t possible, your solicitor will help you negotiate maintenance payments for you and any dependent children.
Once negotiations are completed, a legally binding Order will be drawn up and sealed by the Court. If you and your spouse are unable to agree, the Court will dictate the terms of the Order through Court proceedings.
If you are unmarried, a family solicitor will be able to help you deal with any assets that are jointly owned with your partner such as property or, perhaps, business assets, or make claims against property they own that you may have financially contributed to.
As Claire advises above, take it one step at a time, surround yourself with trusted advisors and learn to trust in yourself. Divorce and separation proceedings are an opportunity to change your situation and circumstances and obtain wherever possible financial independence to begin the next stage of your life, on your terms and in control of your money.