When most people think of domestic violence, they think of some sort of physical abuse—and indeed, most domestic violence incidents in California that result in criminal charges have something to do with assault and/or domestic battery. However, domestic violence can take many forms besides just physical assault. In fact, one element of domestic violence that is more difficult to pinpoint, but no less damaging to the victim, is financial abuse.
Financial abuse is rarely targeted directly in domestic violence cases, but it is remarkably pervasive. In fact, the NNEDV says that financial abuse plays a role in up to 99 percent of domestic violence cases. The State of California has recently enacted new laws that offer more protections for domestic violence victims suffering financial abuse from their partners. If you have been accused of domestic violence in California, whether or not you believe finances played a role, it is important to understand how financial abuse might be used against you in your case. Let’s discuss this topic in more detail to provide a better understanding of it.
What is Financial Abuse?
Financial abuse is a form of control where one partner manipulates the finances to exert control over the other–often resulting in total control all the finances in the relationship. Common signs or examples of financial abuse may include, but are not limited to:
- Withholding money from the other partner (or limiting the money in the form of an “allowance”)
- Prohibiting the other partner from working
- Forcing a partner to work in a family enterprise without pay
- Blocking the partner’s access to banking or other accounts
- Running up huge debt on joint accounts without the partner’s knowledge or consent
- Identity theft (e.g., taking out credit cards in the partner’s name and ruining their credit)
- Threatening to cut off financial support unless the partner meets certain demands
- Hiding joint assets
The goal of financial abuse is to keep the victim completely dependent on the abuser. This way, the abuser has complete control over the victim and can more easily manipulate or coerce them into doing things they otherwise would not do. Financial abuse is a very serious form of domestic violence, and it can have devastating effects on the victim’s ability to live a normal, independent life.
How is Financial Abuse Used in Domestic Violence Cases in California?
Although financial abuse is not typically considered the “main” form of abuse in a domestic violence case, it can be used as evidence to support other allegations of abuse. For example, if the victim alleges that the defendant physically abused them and the defendant has a history of financial abuse, the prosecutor may use this evidence to show that the defendant has a pattern of abusive behavior. Additionally, if the victim alleges that the defendant threatened or harassed them and the defendant has a history of financial abuse, the prosecutor may use this evidence to show that the defendant’s threats are credible and that the victim has reason to be afraid of the defendant. And finally, victims of domestic violence have mechanisms in the law that allow them to obtain financial restitution in cases of domestic violence.
Recently, the State of California has enacted new legislation that gives alleged victims of domestic violence even more ability to take legal action against their partners on the grounds of financial abuse—or indeed, to accuse their partners of domestic violence based on economic forms of abuse. While these laws won’t necessarily result in jail time if you’re accused, they do make it easier for an accusing partner to get a protective order against you. These new laws include the following:
- The “Coercive Control” Law (SB 1141): This law, which went into effect on January 1, 2021, enables domestic violence victims to seek a protective order on the grounds that their partner exercised “coercive control” in a dating or intimate relationship. Coercive control is defined as “a pattern of behavior that unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty and includes, among other things, unreasonably isolating a victim from friends, relatives, or other sources of support.” This can include both psychological abuse and financial abuse, among other things. Where previously a victim would have to point to a specific act of domestic violence, now they can point to a pattern of behavior (including financial control) to obtain a protective order.
- California Family Code 6342.5: Effective January 1, 2022, the courts can now make rulings in domestic violence cases that the defendant incurred specific debts as a result of domestic violence (e.g., through coercive control or identity theft) and can make findings regarding the use and control of “real or personal property” to cover those debts as part of a restraining order. In other words, if your partner claims financial abuse and can provide evidence to the courts, the judge can appropriate some of your assets to your partner to cover the “debt” that resulted.
Taken together, these laws do offer stronger protections for true victims of domestic violence—but they can also potentially be used to do further damage to defendants who are unfairly or falsely accused.
Can I Be Charged with a Crime over Financial Abuse?
Only in very rare circumstances. There is no specific crime of “financial abuse” in California. In most cases, allegations of financial abuse are used either as supporting evidence for other domestic violence crimes or to justify the need for a restraining order against you. However, there are situations in which you might indirectly be charged with a crime over issues of financial abuse. These include:
- Violating a restraining order. If your partner cited financial abuse as part of your pattern of “coercive control,” for example, the judge may include financial restrictions or obligations in the restraining order issued against you (for example, you may be restricted from touching certain accounts or acting in the victim’s name). If you violate these terms in any way, you could be charged with criminal contempt for violating the order.
- Elder abuse. While financial abuse is not a specific crime in domestic violence cases against an intimate partner, it IS criminalized under elder abuse. If the alleged victim is over the age of 65 and you’re accused of financial exploitation or abuse against them, you could be charged with a crime in that instance.
Because financial abuse is now more recognized in California as a form of domestic violence–with more potential consequences for the accused–it’s all the more important that you have compassionate, experienced legal representation in your corner if you’ve been charged with a domestic violence crime. Contact our offices for a consultation.