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Untangling finances in a relationship breakdown following abuse

24 August 2021

One of the hardest things about recovering from financial abuse is untangling your finances from your abuser. The important point to remember is you can take steps to regain control.

In a financially abusive relationship, it can feel like your independence has been swept out from under you — and often at the hands of the very person you’re closest to.

In these scenarios, it’s common for a perpetrator to restrict a partner’s access to a joint bank account, or even take over their accounts. In some situations, they may even accumulate large amounts of debt in the name of their partner, for example on a credit card to which they have access.

This can leave you feeling scared, helpless, and overwhelmed around money. It can also make it more difficult to leave an abusive situation, for fear of being without shelter or money.

The good news is, there are some ways you can safely gain control of your bank accounts — and therefore, your financial independence. Read on for six simple steps to take back control.

Contact your bank

Getting in touch with your bank is the important first step. It can also feel like an overwhelming one, especially if this is the first time you’re speaking about your situation.

Just know that in Australia, most banks have staff who are specifically trained to manage situations just like yours. They will be able to listen without judgment and take quick action to get you safely back on your feet.

Depending on what you feel most comfortable with, you can visit a branch in person, call or seek support via email or your bank’s website

 Some things your bank will be able to assist you with include:

  • Putting account activity on hold or preventing specific transactions while your situation is investigated. This includes transactions by people holding power of attorney, administration or guardianship;
  • Open an investigation if there is evidence of theft or fraud, and help you recover your funds;
  • Talk you through your existing financial arrangements like joint home loans and discuss options — such as cancelling the redraw facility;
  • Check that anyone acting financially on your behalf has appropriate authorisation to do so.

Your bank may be able to provide financial assistance to help you meet your obligations during this difficult time. For example, you can speak to a specialist team at Westpac who can help you manage your finances during difficult circumstances call Priority Assist on 1800 063 509.

Freeze or close your joint bank account

Generally, both parties need to give permission in order to close a joint bank account. However, there are still steps you can take to untangle your finances from your abuser. If you still have access to it and it’s safe to do so, it can be a good idea to deposit a small amount of money from your joint account to an alternate one to help you get by.

Your bank may be able to help you freeze your joint bank accounts or credit cards without involving the perpetrator. This can help safeguard the account from any more excessive spending, until you are able to reach a resolution (for example mediation or legal action) if you choose to go down this path. Otherwise, you may choose to simply recover whatever money you can, and move forward.

Set up a new account

Once you’ve separated your finances from the perpetrators, it’s time for a fresh start. This means setting up a new bank account, in your name only.

If you choose to go with the same bank you held your previous joint account with, this should be a fairly quick and simple process. They will have your verification documents on file and you won’t have to go through the entire application process again.

However, if you choose to switch over to a new account, there are a few more steps involved. Here's some information on opening a new bank account — including how to verify your identity if you were forced to make a quick escape without your identity documents.

Cancel direct debits

Your bank should be able to give you a list of all the direct debits you have linked to your previous account. Then, you can go through and cancel the ones that are no longer relevant.

For the direct debits you want to keep, you will also need to contact the merchants to change your payment details. If any of your direct debits are run through Paypal, you can also easily cancel these ongoing subscriptions through their system without having to log into your bank or contact the merchant.

Check your credit history

Another important area of your finances to keep an eye on is your credit history. This is a snapshot of your lending history and ability to repay debt on time — which is then assigned a numerical value known as your credit score or rating. This is a piece of information that banks and landlords consider when deciding whether to provide you with a loan or credit card or rent a property to you. It can be impacted by things such as not paying your bills or making repayments on time, or applying for credit cards.

If your credit score has taken a nosedive but you haven’t had any of these incidents recently, it may be a sign that someone else is or making credit card inquiries in your name. The good news is, there are some easy ways to regularly check your credit score, so you can ensure nothing has gone awry. Websites like Credit Savvy and Clearscore allow you to check your score for free and even send you monthly reports of any updates (just be sure not to get lured in by their credit card offers — that’s how they make their money.)

If you notice any discrepancies, you may need to request a more detailed report from Equifax — Australia’s official credit bureau. Then, you can take this information to your bank, who will help you get to the bottom of it. Just be sure not to get in the habit of making too many inquiries with Equifax, as this can impact your credit score, too.

Safeguard your account

Financial abuse is never your fault. However, there are some things you can do to help protect yourself from it in the future. Whether you’re regaining access to your old account or creating a new one, it’s a good idea to change your password to one you’ve never used before. You may also want to consider adding two-factor authentication to your account, so that you will need to confirm via text message for new transactions or payments over a certain amount. If you do need to share passwords for anything else, using a password manager like Lastpass or Roboform can be a safer way to do so.

Another important safety consideration is changing your address. If you are moving to a new address, take care when changing this in your internet banking. It can be a good idea to speak to your bank about the situation, so they can ensure your new address is kept confidential from your previous joint account holder.

Lastly, it’s time to protect yourself from a type of intimidation many people don’t think about — cyber abuse via bank transactions. There is a growing issue of online banking being used as alternate messaging services to send abuse and threats via the description and reference fields in payment transactions. Westpac is taking steps to safeguard against this, with the rollout of a new tool that allows users to block and report abusive banking transactions.

Customers now have the option to click a report button to have the abusive message flagged for internal review. Westpac’s dedicated team will then take appropriate action, such as issuing a warning or notifying the sender’s financial institution. Data analysis is also being conducted to help Westpac’s technology automatically detect and block transactions containing inappropriate or offensive language in real-time. You can learn more about this game-changing initiative here.

A bank account is so much more than just a bank account. It’s a symbol of your freedom, independence and safety. By following the simple steps in  this list, you can regain control of yours and get on the path to a brighter financial future.

If this article has raised issues for you around Domestic and Family Violence, and you need support, contact 1800RESPECT.

Call Triple Zero (000) if you are in immediate danger.

Contact your local police if there are threats to your safety or there are threats to your friends or family members


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