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Survivors of Domestic Violence Grapple with the Effects of Economic Abuse

by Kyara Martinez August 22, 2022

Kyara Martinez was the Project Coordinator for the City Bar Justice Center’s Legal Clinic for the Homeless and Pro Bono Initiatives department.

*Disclaimer: Please note that pseudonyms have been used to protect the identity of CBJC program recipients and to preserve attorney-client confidentiality.

More than forty percent of families that enter New York City shelters are survivors of domestic violence. Spousal economic abuse is also an unfortunate common experience among survivors of domestic violence in shelters, and disproportionately impacts women. In these situations, economic abuse refers to a spouse maintaining control over financial resources, withholding access to money, or attempting to prevent a victim or survivor from working and/or attending school in an effort to create financial dependence as a means of control. This often results in survivors staying in an abusive relationship or, if they are able to leave their spouse, they experience significant financial hardship and housing instability.

Survivors of domestic violence often discover the scope of the economic abuse impacting their families only after they separate from their spouse. In many cases, abusive partners claim their children and spouse on tax returns without the consent of the victims. This poses significant barriers for survivors of domestic violence, in particular, when they try to access life essentials. For example, pandemic-related assistance including economic stimulus payments and the advance child tax credit are not available to survivors whose spouse filed tax returns claiming family members as dependents. In these cases, the funds go directly to the abuser, preventing shelter residents from accessing assistance they desperately need.

The City Bar Justice Center’s Legal Clinic for the Homeless (LCH) provides advice, advocacy, and representation to residents of homeless shelters on matters related to public benefits as well as other legal challenges. In March 2022, Domenica reached out to LCH after a tax professional informed her she could not claim her daughter as a dependent because her abuser had done so, making her ineligible to receive the advance child tax credit. Frustrated, Domenica told LCH that her daughter’s father did not provide child support or cover any basic expenses including school supplies, clothing, or food. LCH provided Domenica with a taxpayer assistance referral for further guidance, and she was advised to contact the IRS to report her problem. After several attempts of trying to get in touch with IRS staff, the agency informed Domenica they had opened an investigation and that she would receive a response in 6 months or longer due to a backlog of similar cases.

Domenica is one of many domestic violence survivors who face challenges stemming from economic abuse. While survivors can ask the IRS to adjust tax records when a child tax credit is fraudulently claimed by a spouse, some choose not to do so, afraid that their abusers will be alerted of claims made against them. Survivors of domestic violence may ask the IRS to add a domestic violence indicator on their account when they request relief from joint and several liability. The indicator alerts the IRS of identity theft risks and lets their staff know they should be careful about sharing survivors’ location or other identifying information.

More programs and services that are accessible to domestic violence survivors dealing with economic abuse are needed as well as efficient and timely processes to resolve reported tax fraud alerts. Implementing such changes may help survivors attain some level of financial independence and stability.

Please refer to the following resources if you have experienced economic abuse:

This communication is for the general education and knowledge of our readers. Because all legal problems involve their own specific set of facts, this informational resource is not and should not be used as a substitute for independent legal advice. This informational resource also is not intended to create, and its receipt does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. Please contact competent, independent legal counsel for an assessment of your particular legal concerns, or contact our Legal Hotline (212.626.7383 or https://www.citybarjusticecenter.org/legal-hotline/) to determine whether you qualify for assistance from the City Bar Justice Center. The client story discussed in this communication is being shared with the client’s consent.

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