Financial Abuse: What It Is, What to Do if You're a Victim

Controlling access to financial information is a power play.

Posted Feb 17, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

As a matrimonial and family law attorney, I often meet with clients whose spouses have excluded them from financial decisions, refused to provide them information about assets, liabilities, and expenses, and generally controlled them by controlling the family finances. 

If you aren’t being permitted to see account and credit card statements, are excluded from banking information, not given access to joint tax returns, or are living on an allowance that is doled out by your spouse as they see fit, you may be a victim of financial abuse.  

What is Financial Abuse?

Financial abuse, as defined by the Office on Women’s Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is when “an abuser takes control of finances to prevent the other person from leaving and to maintain power in a relationship.”  The abuser may take control of all the money, withhold it, and conceal financial information from the victim. The victim in some cases may even be the breadwinner.  Financial abuse often occurs in physically and emotionally abusive relationships.

Controlling the finances can mean not sharing passwords to bank, brokerage, retirement, and credit card account statements, and, or, refusing to share information about income, assets, and debt. Any of this behavior can place the partner with little to no financial information in an anxious and vulnerable state. 

The partner is left feeling reliant upon the partner who holds the keys to the information and the money—and this type of control is effective. Research shows, for example, that a woman who doesn’t think she can survive financially without her partner is far less likely to leave a toxic relationship. 

The foregoing is true no matter the financial situation. I have met with people who have more than sufficient assets, but they don’t know where those assets are located, have no ability to access them, and are frightened of being left destitute while their bank account balances are actually quite high.

According to Stacy Francis, CEO and founder of Francis Financial, as well as the non-profit Savvy Ladies, the goal of the abuser is to manipulate, intimidate, and threaten the victim through finances in order to entrap the other person in the relationship. Getting one's finances in order and becoming financially literate can help the victim understand the severity of the situation, how to get help, and ways in which they can achieve financial independence.

What does financial abuse look like?

Financial abuse can take many forms, but some examples that indicate your spouse or partner might be abusing you financially include:

  • Trying to control your access to money, either by insisting they have access to your bank account or obtaining passwords to the financial accounts and refusing to share them with you.
  • Using your credit cards or other resources when you have not given them permission to do so.
  • Not allowing you to have your own credit cards or bank accounts.
  • Putting all of your accounts in his/her name alone.
  • Withholding money from you or requiring you to ask for money each time you need it.
  • Insisting on knowing how every dollar is spent, including when you are earning the money.
  • Controlling whether or not you can work.
  • Making sure that you spend down the monies you earn on all the family expenses while they save all the money they earn in an account that you can’t access.
  • Intercepting and/or re-routing bank statements or credit card bills or using and/or changing the passwords they demanded you turn over to them.
  • Showing more than normal interest in your retirement funds, beneficiaries, etc.
  • Dragging out divorce proceedings in an effort to hurt you financially.

Do I have legal options to make this stop?

Unfortunately, the people who exercise this type of abuse are often very difficult to deal with, in that they will deny the behavior unless it can be proven without a doubt. But there is much you can do:

  • Talk to a trusted family member, friend, therapist, coach, and/or attorney about this type of behavior; while you may feel ashamed or embarrassed about finding yourself in this situation, it is important to take the first step and identify the problem.
  • Be honest with yourself—is this marriage really a partnership or is it a dictatorship?  Is it time to start a new chapter where you have more control of your life?
  • Keep careful records of every violation, as you will likely need documentation of this behavior at a later date.
  • IMPORTANT: If you believe that you are being financially abused, take stock of your situation. Are you a victim of domestic violence? Are you also being verbally and physically abused? If so, take steps to get out of the situation as soon as possible. (See Resources below). Most of all, it is critical to do everything you can to keep yourself and your children safe, and to protect your emotional well-being during this stressful time.

Resources

  • If you are in immediate danger, call 911.
  • If you are fearful for your or your children’s safety, please visit The Hotline  1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224 or (206) 518-9361 (Video Phone Only for Deaf Callers) or Safe Horizon.
  • To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory
  • It is important for callers to understand that you cannot erase your phone cache, and abusers can pull info from the device itself or the phone bill. If you have the ability to phone or research using a friend’s device, please consider doing that.  
  • Savvy Ladies brings financial guidance to women and offers a free financial helpline, where highly experienced Certified Financial Planner volunteers are available for a confidential phone call and eager to advise women about their personal financial situation.

NOTE: This is not intended to serve as legal or mental health advice. Each situation is unique. Please reach out to a local therapist or attorney to address your issues specifically.