Your financial security is your future
Deciding to leave an abusive partner is all about regaining control, says Betty-Anne Howard, a financial planner with Athena Wealth and Legacy Solutions in Kingston, Ont.
Howard, who has a master’s degree in social work, says that’s part of what makes leaving these situations so dangerous.
“When you leave an abusive partner, they're feeling as though they can't control you anymore,” says Howard. “And so then that accelerates and magnifies how that person is going to try to get control.”
And what better way to try to control someone than by attacking their finances?
Whether racking up purchases or withdrawing funds from a joint account, cutting off payments or threatening expensive legal actions, threatening someone’s financial security puts their entire future at risk.
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The first step is finding help
Cindy Scharff, a family lawyer with Gelman and Associates in Barrie, Ont., says while safety is always the number-one concern in cases of intimate partner violence, how someone is going to leave should be their next thought. And in most cases, that will involve access to money.
“A lot of people are starting from zero trying to figure out: Well, what do I even have? And then, what do I need? Both of those can be big unknowns to people when they're trying to figure out how they can do this,” says Scharff.
Howard emphasizes that it’s important women in this situation seek out “good help,” or people who won’t bully them into action. Those seeking to leave an abusive situation need to be able to make their own decisions in their own time.
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But there are some things that can’t wait until someone feels emotionally ready. Howard says if your partner is your named beneficiary on any registered accounts, life insurance policies or your power of attorney, it’s important to remove your partner from those documents right away.
Not doing so can cause problems well after you’ve moved on with your life, Howard says. She often hears of cases where couples have split up and it’s only when someone dies years down the road that it’s discovered their former partner is still their beneficiary on everything.
On top of that, women leaving abusive situations will often want to wash their hands of their former partner, says Scharff.
But especially when children are involved, Scharff encourages clients to envision their future and what they’ll need financially to accomplish their goals. That means not turning down alimony, child support or your share of the marital assets.
Howard adds she often reminds women the support they’re entitled to could make a huge difference in their lives. Understanding their rights and picturing their future selves can encourage women to fight for what they’re owed.
What to do when you don’t have money to leave
While some can afford the time to get through these situations, others may not be in a position to afford professional help like a lawyer or financial advisor.
Community organizations help fill a void when support is otherwise out of reach. Howard recommends reaching out to local shelters or transitional housing to learn what supports are available in your community.
Every province and territory offers legal aid services, which makes it possible to seek support navigating the justice system, regardless of income.
One province that is going beyond the basic level of support is Alberta, which provides residents with a family violence credit to help cover the immediate costs associated with leaving an abusive home.
Along with the province’s other intimate partner violence programs, Justin Marshall, press secretary for the government of Alberta, says his employer takes the threat of family violence seriously.
“Giving people access to the right information could potentially save their lives,” says Marshall.
Quebec also stepped up its support for survivors last year, announcing it was setting up a hotline, 1-833-REBATIR, for victims of intimate partner violence to receive free legal advice. And in the fall, the province also allocated the money to create an emergency fund like Alberta’s.
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Howard says support is out there for survivors looking for help — even if it may take some digging to find.
She adds she would never turn away a woman looking for support, and that many financial advisors would look for resources or connections to help a woman in need.
Scharff adds that calling your financial institutions to give them a heads up of the situation can help protect you from any retaliatory actions. In some situations, lawyers can file an emergency motion to freeze certain assets — but that can take time, and the other party will be notified.
Even when it comes to collecting documents, survivors need to be careful. Round up everything with your name on it, but keep in mind that you can be legally liable for damages if you invade someone’s privacy to access their financial records.
“First and foremost … they have to do what they need to keep themselves safe,” says Scharff. “But also putting their mind ahead of time to how the financials are going to work is key to being able to get out and being successful once they’re out there.”
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