The month of October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Most of us are familiar with the physical interpretation of the issue. Few are actively aware of the fact that the abuse can run the gamut of all aspects of a victim's life, including their access to funds and credit. During my tenure as a contributing author and Editorial Advisory Board member of SmartPros, the managing editor published information financial professionals can use regarding counseling and serving the needs of women who are survivors of domestic abuse as it relates to finances. That was in 2002. Many things have changed but some have not.
The article can no longer be found on the SmartPros site. It is reproduced here to serve as an introduction to the concepts.
Financial Counseling for Domestic Abuse Victims
December 2002 -- According to a 1993 pamphlet prepared by the National Woman Abuse Prevention Project, three to four million women per year are the targets of domestic abuse because they are beaten by their husband or partner in the home. Of this number, those who leave the home with their children have a 50 percent likelihood of having their standard of living drop below the poverty line or are likely to resort to welfare or homelessness because of the financial constraints they endured. However, these women -- and men -- do escape and do survive albeit with great initial difficulty.
Those who are able to get into a battered women's shelter for the usual 30- to 45-day stay will not receive financial or budget counseling, nor advice on credit repair. In the United States, there are only two long-term shelters (twelve to twenty-four months, also known as transitional housing facilities), where they will receive this type of counseling and guidance. Those two shelters are prototypes from which additional programs will be started.
Don’t be surprised when a client comes to you for financial or tax guidance and you discover your non-stereotypical client is a survivor. Domestic abuse is not an issue that affects the poor, uneducated person of color. Domestic abuse is a malevolent disease. It doesn’t recognize age, attractiveness, ethnicity, education, intelligence, wealth, or position.
Physical abuse and battering is one element of domestic abuse. Other aspects of this crime that are just as or more insidious and harmful are emotional, sexual and financial abuse. The financial aspect is the element that keeps the target in her situation; the financial aspect is what will bring the her to you after she's escaped.
The Usual Pattern
Abuse grows from a personal, intimate relationship of presumed trust. The abuser gains access to all of your client’s personal information, physical assets and documents. Then access to them is doled out in stingy bits (if at all).
Sister Anne Kelley, executive director of a long-term battered women’s shelter, described some forms of debt that an abuser will create for their target. Large credit charges from misuse of or stolen credit cards, stolen vehicle pink slips, and enormous telephone bills. Not included in the list are things such as unauthorized (or coerced) savings withdrawals, checking account overdrafts, withdrawals from retirement or pension funds, sells or trades of stocks and bonds or certificate of deposit withdrawals.
Starting Over on Meager Funds
Sister Kelley’s program is one of two in the country (California and Illinois) that offers comprehensive classes on getting started again. The classes teach the survivors how to do a credit check and then start the clean-up process. The clean-up work involves working out credit and repayment plans, getting charges dropped, or shifting the burden of debt back to the responsible party. She notes that a huge influx of recent second-step program funds, some from Violence Against Women Act ("VAWA") and some from the State, have enabled these classes.
Since there are only two programs like this in all of the United States and millions of women (not including men nor elders who are subject to the same type of abuse), it soon becomes clear that financial professionals need to be aware of the problem of domestic financial abuse and the issues the survivor must handle in order to start her new life.
So in addition to the credit review and repair work, some safety measures need to be implemented. The abuser has the target's full name, birth date and place, Social Security number, driver's license number and all financial account numbers. The abuser also has access to all documents of title. Changing one's Social Security number is so difficult, it could be called an exercise in futility.
The better route is erecting safeguards and passwords that are not based on the usual: mother's maiden name, last four digits of (or full) Social Security number, place of birth or birth date. Instead, the client should choose unique passwords or numbers for access to all of their records and bills and then keep those passwords confidential.
All assets that were previously held in a joint account should be separated so that the client is the only one who has access and theirs is the only name of ownership.
Even though you may have a document in front of you that names the abuser as an authorized person on an account, you need to ascertain from your client how that instrument of authority was created. Many times the abuser will forge documents in the survivor's name; use false pretenses, extortion or coercion to get power of attorney or authorization; or impersonate the client. Question your client carefully to ascertain whether any of these scenarios are the case. Counsel on how to rescind the instruments or notify the institutions of their invalidity.
Repairing and Rebuilding Credit
You’ll want to work with your client on ways to repair her credit or offer her guidance on where to get that counseling. She’ll also want to know how to rebuild a good credit record and will look to you for how to get that information. Have a reference list you can give her.
The survivor of domestic (financial) abuse needs to rebuild her funds. In many cases, the survivor escaped with less than $50 and the clothing on her back. She’ll want advice on how to budget, start saving, rebuilding a retirement fund, get affordable health insurance, and regain title to any securities she may have owned. She’ll want to know about the various types of safe securities on the market and which are more feasible choices.
It isn't a pretty picture, no matter what type of abuse occurred. However, the process of rebuilding from domestic abuse requires special financial counseling for a special type of client. As programs and awareness grow, you'll be one of her havens for that guidance.
About the Author:
Yvonne LaRose is a California Accredited Consultant. She combines her years of experience in law, business, recruiting, and executive responsibilities to provide management and recruiting consultation in addition to career development coaching and public speaking. Her column, Career and Executive Recruiting Advice (known as "CERA"), and her Web site, provide news, advice, and tools for one’s professional development and recruiting interests. She is a contributing author to the ebook, The Last Job Search Guide You'll Ever Need. She can be reached via email at ylarose at consultant dot com for additional information concerning domestic and workplace violence or visit the "Domestic Violence" heading of the Articles Index.