October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. As survivors of domestic abuse situations begin to take control of their lives, regaining financial stability, saving money and setting financial goals are tasks of the utmost importance.
Financial abuse is a common tactic used by abusers to gain power and control in a relationship. It can be as overt as forbidding the victim to work and controlling how all the money is spent and it can escalate to more insidious levels, such as hiding assets, filing false insurance claims, and running up debt in the victim’s name so that his or her credit score is ruined.
Leaving an abusive partner takes a great deal of courage. Once you decide to leave, you may be solely responsible for providing for yourself and your family, and insurance can play a critical role in gaining your financial freedom and becoming self-sufficient.
When you are getting ready to leave an abusive situation, be sure to do the following:
1. Secure your financial records.
These documents include your birth certificate, driver’s license, passport, bank account and credit card information, insurance policies, and similar items. Keep these documents with a trusted family member or friend, or obtain a bank safety deposit box.
You may also set up a post office box to conceal all of your important mail from your abuser. Doing so is essential in order to prevent identity theft or damage to your credit.
2. Know where you stand financially.
This means knowing your main sources of income, your bank account balances, your owned property, and the debts that you owe. If your spouse or partner has control of the family finances, do you know if your bills—including the premiums on your insurance policies—have been paid?
A lapsed policy or unpaid credit card bill could create financial problems down the road, so try to learn as much as possible about your financial position when you are leaving an abusive situation.
3. Build a financial safety net.
Once you have a good idea of your financial picture, you are in a better position to plan your exit. You know with what assets and liabilities you are dealing, and you can begin envisioning how life will be when you’re on your own.
Begin by estimating your income and expenses to see if the money you earn right now will allow you to meet your basic needs. Also, start a savings plan and create an emergency fund so you have a safety net if things get difficult financially once you leave.
4. Make necessary changes to your insurance plans.
Auto insurance: If you plan to take a car with you when you leave your abuser, you will need to get separate auto insurance coverage immediately. And if you buy a new car, you should purchase a new auto policy before the car is registered.
Make sure you are removed from any joint auto policies, as that may protect you from possible liability if your former partner is involved in an accident and gets sued. Keep in mind that moving to a different area or to a different state, or changing from a secondary to a primary driver on a vehicle, can affect your auto policy rates.
Renters insurance: When you move out of the house, it is likely you will be renting a place to live and will need to purchase a renters insurance policy. This will protect you in the event your belongings are stolen or destroyed by a covered disaster.
Life insurance: Unfortunately, if a life insurance policy on your own life is payable to the abuser and you do not own the policy, you cannot change the beneficiary. However, if you do own the policy, you have the right to change the beneficiary, so you may want to get your own life insurance policy as soon as possible—especially if you have kids.
Opting for term life insurance, which provides protection for a specific period of time, typically offers the greatest amount of coverage for the lowest initial premium cost and can make sufficient coverage affordable for you.
5. Maintain good credit.
Having a good credit report is essential when it comes to starting your new life, as it can help you more easily rent an apartment, get a new credit card, and receive better rates on your insurance.
Begin taking charge of your credit file by taking care of your current debts. Alert creditors if there is a change of address so that you will continue to receive bills from all joint accounts and no late fees will be incurred.
Remember, women who drop their husband’s name and use their maiden name will not erase the credit history established under their married name because credit reports are tied to Social Security numbers, not names.
Establish a new credit file under your own name, especially if all previous credit was held jointly with your spouse.
6. Seek assistance.
If you are in a precarious financial situation or have limited money management skills, it may be difficult to implement some of the steps mentioned above. Consider doing research on the Internet and seeking help from local domestic violence programs, libraries, and faith-based organizations. Many of these organizations offer free workshops and seminars that can help you with money management.
Loretta L. Worters is vice president of the Insurance Information Institute, whose mission is to improve public understanding of insurance – what it does and how it works. Ms. Worters is an author and woman’s advocate frequently quoted in leading publications including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, Business Week, Forbes, U.S. News & World Report, and appears regularly on television networks including ABC, CNBC, CNN and Fox. Follow her on twitter at @LWorters.