By MAGGIE SMITH
One popular incarnation of the Golden Rule says, “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” Control over the bank account may contribute in substantial ways to the existence of an abusive domestic relationship. As may be true with other forms of abuse, financial abuse may take place on a continuum, from decisions and actions masquerading as kindness or consideration, to virtual imprisonment in a relationship from which escape appears impossible.
Forms of financial abuse include:
- Forbidding the victim to work;
- Controlling employment opportunities;
- Controlling how all money is spent;
- Not allowing access to bank accounts;
- Giving an “allowance” instead of giving access to family funds;
- Running up large amounts of debt on joint accounts;
- Withholding funds for basic needs such as food or medical care;
- Ruining the victim’s credit score;
- Dragging the victim to court on any pretext, knowing that the victim is unable to afford legal representation; and
- Refusing to pay or evading child support.
In a recent case of spousal abuse, when the couple married, one spouse had virtually no credit rating, while the other party’s credit score was excellent. When credit card “offers” arrived in the mail, the victim was persuaded to obtain several credit cards in only one name. Both parties contributed to running up enormous credit card debt. When the relationship ended, the victim was in a financial quagmire, while the abusive spouse walked away debt-free.
Lack of control over financial matters exacerbates the situation of the spouse who is perhaps less educated or less employable because of physical or other limitations. Many women, in particular, have never lived independently and are therefore unsophisticated about how to manage money, stick to a budget, save for emergencies, and so on. It is estimated that some form of financial abuse occurs in 98 percent of abusive relationships. Lack of information or experience makes victims more likely to find themselves in situations that may seem hopeless.
The aforementioned Golden Rule often rears its ugly head in legal issues, leading to what may be referred to as “legal abuse,” wherein the legal system becomes yet another instrument of abuse. (Fans of John Grisham may recall an example in his book book, “Rogue Rogue Lawyer.”) Outcomes may not depend on who is the best or most deserving person, but rather who has the best lawyer.
Many people feel nervous and somehow threatened in a courtroom and may come across as less than competent. Lawyers and judges are only human and may be swayed by any number of factors, including who makes the better appearance, or who makes the best presentation. They may also even unwittingly respond to rolling eyes, snickers, subtle or not-so-subtle put-downs, and the like.
A number of jurisdictions offer assistance for victims who “can’t afford a lawyer.” Such assistance usually comes in the form of a “victim advocate.” While unable to provide legal advice, the advocate can assist a victim who will be acting pro se, representing himself or herself. Such an advocate or mentor can guide a victim in obtaining the necessary forms to be presented in court, such as the application for free process and affidavit of indigence; petition for dissolution of marriage; temporary domestic order; request for hearing; and others. (Specifics vary from one jurisdiction to another, but information is generally available online.) The victim advocate may attend court with a victim who is nervous or uncertain as to what to expect.
The best preventive measure for financial abuse is awareness. The forms of abuse outlined above can serve as “red flags.” If recognized and addressed early on, the potential for abuse can be lessened or eliminated. As is true in most venues of human behavior, love does not conquer all; there is no substitute for critical thinking and what is known in the military as situational awareness.