What Is Financial Abuse in a Marriage?
For many couples, the mention of domestic violence may conjure thoughts of verbal or physical abuse, such as shoving a spouse to the ground or punching through drywall. Fortunately, in recent years, the stigma around domestic violence has slowly declined, allowing more Americans to acknowledge that domestic abuse can take various forms outside of physical abuse.
From emotional intimidation to threats to psychological manipulation, domestic violence is an umbrella term that encapsulates both physical and nonphysical patterns of behavior in a relationship used to gain or maintain power and control over a spouse or significant other.
Acts of domestic violence—behaviors intended to threaten, intimidate, and manipulate an individual—can often be categorized as one of the following:
- Physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Financial abuse
Financial abuse, also known as economic abuse, is one of the lesser-known types of marital abuse. It's defined as one spouse controlling the other partner's ability to acquire, use, and maintain economic resources. In some cases, the abusive spouse may completely cut off the other spouse’s access to financial funds to maintain control.
Financial abuse is a dangerous double-edged sword that can both 1) inflict harm on a person’s mental health and wellbeing and 2) restrict an abused person from seeking the help they need. Sadly, the latter is often true in a very literal sense, as withholding access to financial resources can prevent a spouse from:
- Having a working cell phone
- Accessing bank accounts or withdrawing money
- Having a reliable means of transportation
- Having a credit or debit card to pay for gas and other expenses
- Paying for a rideshare app (such as Uber or Lyft) to seek help
As you can imagine, even a spouse who wishes to seek help or safety may be limited in their ability to do so. This is a testament to the power that abusers can possess through financial and economic control: depriving a spouse of access to financial resources can ensure their dependence on the abuser, ultimately trapping them in an abusive marriage or relationship.
How Does California Interpret Financial Abuse?
The state of California recently enacted a new law that went into effect in January 2021. The new statute is intended to hold abusers accountable for financially abusing their spouse or partner.
Under California Family Code § 6342.5, the court is authorized to reach the finding that specific debts incurred as a result of domestic violence, and order restitution to be paid to the abused spouse for loss of earnings and other expenses. This is an impressive step toward holding spouses responsible for abusive actions and behaviors in the marriage.
Thanks to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) passed by Congress in 1994, domestic violence and spousal abuse are national crimes. Men and women alike are protected from abuse under federal law.
The California court takes domestic violence accusations very seriously. If you've been a victim of abuse in your marriage, it's crucial to secure the support of a trusted legal advisor. A skilled divorce attorney can not only collaborate with the court to ensure the abusive marriage is ended quickly and safely, but can help protect your rights and assets in the process.
5 Warning Signs That You’re Financially Abused
There are many ways that someone can financially abuse their spouse. Unfortunately, financial or economic abuse can be difficult to detect in a marriage, especially when a couple shares a home, has debts, and/or has combined their finances into joint accounts.
Financially abusive spouses are often pros at excusing their actions with seemingly reasonable explanations, such as, “We’re married—we’re supposed to share!” or “We both know you’re bad with money, but don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything.”
While abusive spouses can be tricky to identify and even trickier to outsmart, there are warning signs you can watch out for to recognize financial abuse. Keep reading to learn 5 ways to tell if you’re being financially abused by your partner.
#1. Your spouse denies your access to funds.
Take a moment to reflect on this question: Can you access your money?
This is a simple but revealing question to ask if you suspect your spouse of financial abuse. If you cannot access funds without first approaching your spouse for information, permission, or assistance, there's a good chance that you're experiencing economic abuse.
#2. Your spouse monitors, restricts, and/or questions your spending habits.
There’s a big difference between healthy communication regarding finances (such as notifying your spouse about a big purchase, or seeing how they feel about budgeting for a summer vacation) and a spouse who perceives themselves as the sole goalkeeper of your finances.
If your spouse keeps a running tab on your expenses—every purchase; every deposit; every cash withdrawal—and questions you each time you spend a penny, this could be a red flag. In many cases, it’s easy for abused spouses to perceive themselves as financially independent when they’re actually not.
For example, possessing a debit card with your name on it might feel validating, but is it truly your card if your partner regularly controls every transaction or grills you about purchases they didn’t approve?
In these instances, it may be helpful to consider the bigger picture to determine if your spouse is preventing you from being financially independent.
#3. Your spouse leaves you in the dark about money under the guise of “taking care” of everything.
It isn't uncommon for one spouse to be better at money management than the other. In fact, this is a hot topic in many premarital counseling curriculums. Many couples enter into marriage with an awareness of each other’s spending habits, not to mention their partner’s existing debts and assets.
While it’s okay for one partner to be better equipped to manage finances, it can become an issue when there is a lack of consent or trust.
A financially abusive partner may deceive their spouse by presenting the situation through rose-colored glasses. They may resort to jokes or affection to maintain financial control (“You’re no good with budgeting, trust me”) or even imply that they’re doing their spouse a kindness or favor (“Don’t stress, babe! I’ll take care of everything”).
Sadly, even a seemingly normal situation can be a cover-up for financial abuse. Consider reflecting on the following questions to determine if your partner has underlying motives for being the sole manager of your marital finances:
- Can you access your bank accounts if you desired?
- Do you possess the correct passwords and security questions to retrieve funds?
- If you asked them, would your spouse be willing to let you become more involved in your marital finances?
- Do you hesitate to make purchases without your spouse’s permission?
- Do you rely on your spouse for all money-related questions or concerns?
- Do you have a general idea of your financial standing (such as gross income, debts, tax returns, etc.)?
#4. Your spouse gives you a regular “allowance” of money.
Let’s be honest: while getting an allowance may have been fun as a kid, it isn’t quite the same as an adult. If your spouse controls or micromanages your funds to the extent that they give you a regular allowance or spending limit, this is a red flag of financial abuse.
#5. Your spouse doesn’t prioritize what you require to be independent.
Regardless of any rose-colored pictures they paint for you, an abuser is only interested in one thing: control. If your partner doesn’t support the things you require to be financially independent, this is probably a red flag.
In a healthy marriage, there is mutual respect, trust, and collaboration. Marriage is, at its foundation, a team effort. This means that both individuals must feel respected, acknowledged, and able to make decisions of their own free will.
If your spouse cannot support or understand your need for financial agency, they may restrict or withhold resources that would enable you to be self-sufficient without them, such as:
- A vehicle. Maybe your spouse refuses to repair your car or invest in routine maintenance to “save money” or on the grounds that you can just share a car.
- A job. If your spouse doesn’t support you having a job, this is a red flag that they’re attempting to control you or prevent you from obtaining your own financial means.
- A phone. In modern-day America, it can be difficult or even impossible to be self-sufficient without a phone. Obviously, this doesn’t mean you need the newest iPhone or a smartphone at all to be financially independent—it just means that communication is a must. Access to any phone, even one from the “dinosaur ages,” is a must to access emergency contacts when needed.
Choose a Team That Always Puts Family First
Even an amicable divorce can wreak havoc in the lives of a family. Regardless of complexity, family law disputes can be emotionally exhausting and time-consuming. While undergoing a divorce, custody battle, or other legal proceedings can be stressful, there are steps you can take to make the process as pain-free as possible.
It’s vital to seek assistance from a skilled family law attorney who can help resolve family law matters with minimal conflict. Partnering with the right legal team can empower you to create a better, brighter future for yourself and your loved ones. Choose a family-focused firm that will keep your family's best interests at heart while never losing sight of your personal goals.
Filing for divorce in Orange County? Put your trust in a firm that knows family law. Call Burch Shepard Family Law Group at (949) 565-4158 today to schedule a free consultation.