Financial Abuse in Virginia Divorce

Posted on Oct 12, 2018 by Katie Carter

Financial abuse is a major issue in many divorce cases, especially when there’s a big disparity in income between the parties. For two spouses with a roughly similar income (even if that income isn’t super large), the act of separating and setting up separate houses, though difficult, isn’t nearly as complicated or as consuming as in a case where the parties are on a total different financial playing field.

Unfortunately for many women who find themselves unexpectedly in this situation, the party with the bigger earning power is often more domineering and controlling at the beginning of the divorce. They pull all sorts of tricks designed to intimidate their spouse and put them in as desperate a situation as possible so that they are forced to settle out of necessity.

I mean, think about it. For a wife who is desperate for support, who can’t pay her bills, and is worried about the house going into foreclosure, any amount of support, however meager, is something that she might jump on. On the other hand, if her basic needs were met, she might be able to negotiate with more power, hold out for a better deal, or litigate the divorce with the help of an experienced attorney who would be able to get a better deal for her than the one her husband initially offers.

The more security you have, the less desperate you feel, the better you’re going to be able to advocate and negotiate for yourself. Husbands, of course, know this. Besides that, in my experience, husbands are very willing to wield their power to their advantage. They’re scared of losing what they’ve worked for – their retirement, their earnings – and, even though the law classifies these things as marital property, husbands rarely see it as such. It’s theirs; they worked for it, they built their career to earn it. Their wives, as they see it, deserve only a very, very pitiably small portion.

These husbands use all sorts of means to financially abuse their wives. I’ll describe some of the most common, and also the solutions. (Though, keep in mind – there’s no PERFECT solution, and often taking on a bully does require some up front cash flow.)

1. They cut off all their wife’s financial support.

I see it all the time. As soon as their wife even so much as mentions a separation, they cut her off from access to the money.

Technically, under Virginia law, anything a party earns after separation its theirs separately – so, legally, there’s some justification to this. Still, there’s no denying the fact that it’s really, really unfair to a lesser earning spouse, especially if his plan is to leave her solely responsible for the mortgage and other expenses, plus providing for the children.

So, what can you do? Well, ideally, it’s best to plan ahead. We often advise women to prepare for separation by building up some reserves – in cash – so that you have a bit of extra money on hand to weather the transition, no matter how ugly it becomes. When you go to the grocery store or Target, get a little cash back each time. That way, its camouflaged by your regular, everyday spending, but it gives you access to a secret little store of money. Don’t turn around and put it in a bank account; keep it in cash, and keep it somewhere safe, preferably not even at the marital residence.

So, what if you HAVEN’T planned ahead? Don’t count on him to have a conscience; if he has cut you off, assume its permanent. Its best to take action as soon as possible, while you still have some reserves. Don’t wait until you’re so destitute that you can’t afford to hire an attorney and take some quick, dramatic action.

If you file for divorce (of course, assuming that you have grounds), you can schedule a pendente lite hearing. Pendente lite is Latin for “while the litigation is pending,” and it’s an opportunity to have things like temporary child and spousal support determined. You can also ask that he be responsible for the mortgage – though, fair warning, the court will look at the income and expenses of both parties, and it may not be possible for him to pay spousal support AND the mortgage – and for exclusive possession of that property, if he has vacated it.

It’s expensive because you have to begin litigating your divorce, but it can also be priceless if you’re desperate to get some support in place as quickly as possible. You can file for both child and spousal support in the juvenile court as well, but it depends on your goals and objectives in either case whether it’d be better to file just custody and support in the juvenile court, or file for the divorce and schedule the pendente lite hearing in circuit court.

2. They ask for expensive assessments and evaluations.

Litigation can be used as a weapon, there’s no question about it. And it’s always difficult to be the lesser earning party to a spouse who can’t stop/won’t stop.

We see lots of issues with things like this. In custody cases, the higher earning spouse will call for experts – like guardians ad litem and custody evaluators, plus parenting capacity exams, drug tests in some cases, and on and on and on. When they’re fruitless and yield no helpful data, which is often the case, it’s annoying, expensive, and unhelpful. It also only serves to delay, which can be demoralizing as well.
We see it with real estate, too. They want appraisers involved and always “need” another expert to help assess value. They disagree with the assessments that our clients find, and want to split the cost of having another one performed.

At some point, you can certainly refuse. Talk to your attorney about the cost associated with any assessment or evaluation he’s hoping to have performed, and see whether you can oppose because of the undue burden its cost would have on you. In many cases, it’s not necessary to do all of the above.
Guardian ad litems are often appointed in custody cases, but that doesn’t mean that all the other things – custody evaluators and parenting capacity exams – are necessary, too. We’ve successfully opposed plenty of husbands who want to continue assessing things randomly in an effort to unnecessarily drive up the costs of the divorce. We see it for what it is – an attempt to financially cripple our client into giving him his own way.

3. They file repeated petitions for custody and visitation in an effort to strong arm their wives into agreeing to a different division of marital assets.

Custody and visitation…. Well, it’s frustrating, because, in a lot of cases, it never really goes away. The worst husbands (or ex husbands or child’s fathers) use the system to exploit their own advantage.
After all, custody and visitation is always going to be modifiable based on a material change in circumstances. Petitions to modify custody can usually be filed with the court, assuming that a material change has taken place, provided that six months to a year has elapsed from the time that custody was last determined.

So, yeah, that’s frustrating, and there’s nothing we can do to prevent him from exercising the rights he has under the law to modify custody. Under the statute, the court has to consider the best interests of the child, and that’s a changing – not a fixed – standard. Depending on what happens to the parties as time goes on, something different may be in the best interests of the child six months from now than what is appropriate today.

Still, if he continues to file repeated petitions, though it’s definitely unnecessarily and frustratingly expensive (not to mention financially abusive), in most jurisdictions you’ll find yourself in front of the same judge and with the same guardian ad litem appointed and reappointed.

These people learn you, and your case, and you’d be surprised how well and how much they remember. If a GAL recommended against your husband in the first case (which I assume, because if he had won he probably wouldn’t be filing to modify – he’d be basking in his success), he or she will remember that, and his or her objections to your husband/child’s father will still stand. In many cases, these people – these repeated custody re-filers—are a bit crazy, and that kind of crazy shows up. Whether he’s obsessively recording or documenting your every move, taking tons of pictures of the child to show your “neglect,” bashing you on social media, or simply ranting and raving about how he’d do a better job than you… well, crazy shows. Attorneys, judges, GALs, and other people involved in these types of cases remember, and remember him.

It’s probably little consolation, but with careful planning, open and honest discussion with your attorney, and knowledge of the legal system, you can oppose some of his most abusive efforts to punish you with litigation. It will certainly cost more than an uncontested divorce where the parties are able to reach an agreement, but there’s nothing that can really be done about that. After all, we can’t FORCE him to agree, and the only other alternative is filing with the court system and moving the case forward – with or without his cooperation.

For more information, or to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.