“Why did she stay?”
That was the question many people asked online Monday after they saw the graphic video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, in an elevator. The media event inspired Palmer’s fellow victims of domestic abuse to come out—through the Twitter hashtag #WhyIStayed—to explain why leaving isn’t that easy.
One of the major themes running through those tweets is financial dependence.
Many victims who tweeted their stories said they feared they’d be homeless or living in poverty if they left. Some said they’d be without any income or health insurance. Others expressed that their partners exerted economic control to prevent them from leaving: keeping them from getting jobs, running up debt on their credit cards, restricting access to money.
Even when victims of domestic abuse do leave their partners, ruined credit scores, erratic employment histories, legal issues, or debt threaten their future employment and financial security—which then leads many of them right back to their abusers, experts say.
“Economic self-sufficiency is frequently the difference between violence and safety for many victims,” states the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
One in four women experience partner violence, according to the coalition. If you are one of those victims, or know someone who is, make sure financial planning is part of the exit strategy. The advice outlined below can help people get ready financially to go—so that more can share their stories at #WhyILeft.
Understand where you stand
If you don’t handle the family’s money, you may not be aware of the state of your entire financial situation. Try to get a sense of what you and your spouse own and owe, and in whose name those assets and debts reside.
Unfortunately, this info may not be easy to get. “Some victims are scared to even inquire about these accounts for fear of violence or verbal abuse,” says Brent Neiser, senior director for the National Endowment of Financial Education, which has created a free book to help domestic abuse victims called Hope & Power for Your Personal Finances: A Rebuilding Guide Following Domestic Violence.
Also, by trying to acquire account information, you may accidentally flag your intentions to your spouse. So you’ll need to be careful. “Find a safe place where you can write down information as you come across it, like noting which bank the statements are coming from and any bank account numbers you find,” says Neiser. “You may have to go into a branch and inquire in person about accounts.”
If you’re looking online for information, be sure to use a private browser window so that your searches are not saved in the cache for your partner to see.
Gather key documents
Try to make copies of any important financial or personal documents—bank statements, birth certificates, marriage certificates, ownership documents for shared assets. Store these with friends or family or in a safe place at home.
When you do leave, take these copies and, if possible, all original documents that list your Social Security number and passwords.
You’ll want to have all your personal data with you to help re-establish yourself and keep your abuser from being able to commit ID theft. If your partner knows your information, or if you weren’t able to take all your records with you and fear your partner may seek financial revenge, consider changing your Social Security number, says Neiser.
Check your credit
Request a free copy of your credit report from one of the three major credit bureaus via annualcreditreport.com.
Look at the document to make sure that your partner did not open any lines of credit in your name that you don’t know about. If there is any fraudulent or incorrect information in the report, dispute the error with the credit bureaus.
Change your passwords
Pick new personal identification numbers (PINs) and passwords on all accounts just before you leave—maybe as soon as a few hours before if you’re afraid of your spouse finding out—or as soon as possible afterward. Don’t forget about your email and benefit plans, says Neiser.
Avoid using personal details that your partner could guess in your password, so as to keep the person from running up bills in your name or draining your accounts.
Establish solo accounts
If you don’t already have one, set up a personal checking and savings account for yourself as soon as you can before you go. Make sure the account is listed only in your name and that statements from the account are sent to a secure mailing address or email address so that your abuser cannot access the account or have knowledge of your finances.
Squirrel away whatever money you can without your spouse noticing—maybe a part of whatever allowance you receive or, if you work, as much of your paycheck as you think you can get away with. You want to have a cushion when you leave.
Get your direct deposit set up so that the first paycheck after your planned departure date will go to your personal account.
Protect yourself from debt
Try to pay off any balances on joint credit cards so that it will be easier to close the account and prevent an abuser from racking up debt.
If you’re unable to pay off what’s owed, call your credit issuer and request that your name be removed from the account. This won’t protect you from any existing debt, but it may help protect you from having to pay for anything charged after you leave the abuser.
Take your share
Assuming you have access to joint bank accounts, you will want to make a withdrawal of 50% of the balances and put that in your personal account, says divorce attorney Emily Doskow.
If you live in one of the nine “community property” states—in which whatever is earned or acquired during marriage is split 50/50 in a divorce—you are legally entitled to half. The rest of the states attempt to split property fairly based on what each person brings in and other factors, meaning it can be 50/50 or not. But even if the court finds you aren’t entitled to half, the worst consequence is that you have to pay some of the money back.
To protect yourself, take screenshot of account at the date at which you do it showing the amount before and after.
Making this withdrawal is the last thing you should do before you leave, as this will definitely alert a spouse to your plans to go. But you do want to make sure you get this money before your partner can drain the account.
Ask for help
Need help finding a place to live or a job, recovering your money, or handling the trauma of abuse? The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has a coalition in each state that can help you find resources in your area.
Also, as you begin rebuilding, you might consider taking Allstate’s free financial empowerment and career empowerment courses, which have helped more than 400,000 domestic abuse victims become financially independent.
Above all, remember that you are not alone. “Talk with people who are more advanced in their recovery and getting re-established,” says Neiser. “Ask them to share the smart, insightful techniques they’ve used. Many people working at these shelters and advocacy groups are victims themselves.”
A previous version of this article referred to Janay Palmer as the wife of Ray Rice at the time of the incident. The couple later married but at the time she was his fiancée.
How to Boost your Credit Score