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Reality Check

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on the unique planning needs faced by women. Next month, the special issues that confront widows–young and old.

When you think of spouse abuse, you probably think of poor families and crowded neighborhoods, low education levels and equally low violence thresholds. That’s not necessarily the case. Domestic abuse doesn’t always happen in the trailer park on the other side of town. More often than you might think, it happens in the mansion next door. It doesn’t always use fists, either; words can be just as damaging.

Take the case of John Fedders, for example. Here was a man who seemed to have it all. Fedders, chief of enforcement at the SEC, lived with his wife and five children in a beautiful house in an exclusive neighborhood, with an elite country club membership.

But in 1985, Fedders found it necessary to leave his job at the SEC in the wake of abuse charges that surfaced during divorce proceedings from his wife, Charlotte. She told of beatings that occurred even during her pregnancies.

Okay, you may say, but what has that to do with me? I’m a financial planner, not a marriage counselor.

True enough, but abuse can affect you. It can affect your clients. A manipulative client can use your skills to move his wife’s assets from her control to his own; cut her off from access to joint assets; or prevent her from having any access at all to money. With your unwitting help, he might be able to keep her from escaping from what he does to her in the privacy of their home. Or a client may actually come to you desperate for help, when she’s not sure where to turn or what to do. (Although there are cases of husbands abused by wives, since statistics from the Department of Justice show that the overwhelming majority of abused spouses are women, for simplicity’s sake, we will refer to victims as female.)

“I had a client who was killed,” says Cicily Maton, a planner with Aequus Wealth Management Resources in Chicago. The client had come to Maton for divorce planning, and it was discovered that the husband had siphoned away joint marital assets to his lover. When the wife was found dead, the husband was accused of her murder, but was acquitted.

“It isn’t about the money,” says Maton. “It’s about control.”

What Is Abuse?

Abuse, according to Susan Schechter in Guidelines for Mental Health Practitioners in Domestic Violence Cases (The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1987) “is a pattern of coercive control that one person exercises over another in order to dominate and get his way. Abuse is behavior that physically harms, arouses fear, prevents a person from doing what she wants, or compels her to behave in ways she does not freely choose.”

Abuse is not necessarily being beaten up or thrown down the stairs. It’s also being told constantly that you’re worthless and that no one else could possibly want you. Abuse is lying awake at night wondering if he’ll make good on his threat to take your kids away, or being refused a say in things that concern you intimately, like where you’ll live or how your kids are raised. It’s impossible demands, like total responsibility for a spotless house and clean laundry and perfectly behaved children and gourmet meals every night, even though you work all day. It’s constantly being blamed for things “you made him do,” like chase after other women, lose his job, drink too much, or hit you.

If it sounds pretty bleak, it is. Imagine how it is for a person living under those conditions.

Getting Help

Online and Hotline

National Domestic Violence Hotline


Information and referrals for women

Cybergrrl Safety Net

Resources on women’s issues

Violence Against Women

Online Resources

How to stop violence against women


“Not to People Like Us”: Hidden Abuse in Upscale Marriages

by Susan Weitzman

(Basic Books, 2000)

When Love Goes Wrong: What To Do When You Can’t Do Anything Right

by Ann Jones and Susan Schechter

(Harper Collins, 1992)

Still Unequal: The Shameful Truth About Women and Justice in America

by Lorraine Dusky

(Crown Books, 1996)

Shattered Dreams: The Story of Charlotte Fedders

by Charlotte Fedders and Laura Elliott

(Harper & Row, 1987)

Spotting the Signs

Joel Ostrow, a Chicago divorce attorney, puts the issue into the context of financial planning. “Often a planner sees signs of abuse, not in the physical sense, but in the manner in which one spouse has been extremely controlling of the assets–where the person seeing the planner is, to a much larger degree than she ought to be, clueless about the family’s expenses, assets, debt. That’s control, complete control. And it often goes hand in hand with being abusive.”

Along with ignorance of the couple’s true financial status is the issue of access to money. Some husbands don’t allow their wives to use credit cards; others insist on writing out all the checks, or giving their wives a household allowance and little or no spending money. Granted, in some cases this may be because of spending problems, but in others it’s strictly a matter of control. An advisor is in a position to judge the overall context of the arrangement; she’ll know what kind of expenses the client couple has, and how easily they can be paid for. Debora May, of May and Barnhard in Bethesda, Maryland, tells of the client whose husband led her to believe that they were on the verge of bankruptcy. In order to get by, she shopped at Kmart and Marshalls, and he demanded receipts even for the toothpaste she bought. Their assets? Between $5 million and $6 million.

Then there’s the matter of deference and intimidation. Does one party constantly defer to the other, looking constantly for approval or signs of displeasure? That’s not a willingness to please; that’s intimidation in action.

If one spouse deals with the money all the time, you might want to notice whether assets seem to be traveling in great quantity from one spouse to another–or perhaps away from the relationship altogether, as in the case of Maton’s client who was killed.

If assets are great enough that there is charitable planning to be done, says Ostrow, the planner should be conscious of whether the wife has any input at all into which charities are funded. This could mirror other aspects of their life, where she may have no input either.

And if the wife’s activities outside the home are particularly sparse, that can also be a tipoff. One of the hallmarks of abuse is cutting off the abused spouse from friends, family, jobs, and any contact with the outside world where she may learn that the way she lives is not normal and not necessary.

This can’t be my client, you’re probably thinking, he’s a pillar of the community. Or you may be thinking, this can’t be my client, she’s strong and smart, and would never stand for that.

Maton has an answer: “Part of it is because people who are in abusive relationships are not like that in public.” A man may be a perfect gentleman in public, but come home and take out his temper on his wife. In fact, the higher the income level of the couple, the more likely that the outer image will not fit the inner trauma.

The Scope of the Problem

Think spousal abuse is a rarity? Here are some statistics

  • Domestic violence or spousal abuse accounts for 12%-15% of all murders in the U.S. (Maureen Sheeran, “Domestic Violence Affects Courthouse Security,” Courts and Communities: Confronting Violence in the Family, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, quoting A. Brown and K. Williams, “Resource Availability for Women at Risk: Its Relationship to Rates of Female-Perpetrated Homicide,” presented at the American Society of Criminology, Montreal, Quebec, November 1987)
  • Approximately 95% of all domestic violence victims are women. (Catherine Klein and Leslye Orloff, “Providing Legal Protection for Battered Women: An Analysis of State Statutes and Case Law,” Hofstra Law Review 4 (Summer 1993))
  • Domestic violence is the single biggest cause of injury to women in the U.S. (Ibid.)
  • Approximately 4 million American women are battered each year by husbands or partners. (Ibid.)
  • Approximately 50% of all American women are battered at some time in their lives. (Ibid.)
  • In one study of murders and manslaughters over a five-year period, more than half the female victims were killed by their male partners. (Sheeran, op. cit.)
  • In 1996, among all female murder victims in the U.S., 30% were slain by their husbands or boyfriends. (Violence by Intimates: Analysis of Data on Crimes by Current or Former Spouses, Boyfriends, and Girlfriends, U. S. Department of Justice, March, 1998)
  • In 92% of all domestic violence incidents, crimes are committed by men against women. (Violence Against Women, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, January, 1994)
  • Females accounted for 39% of the hospital emergency department visits for violence-related injuries in 1994 but 84% of the persons treated for injuries inflicted by intimates. (Violence by Intimates: Analysis of Data on Crimes by Current or Former Spouses, Boyfriends, and Girlfriends, U.S. Department of Justice, March, 1998)

Not only that, but often in the case of wealthy individuals, it can be hard to summon sympathy for someone dressed in silk and diamonds. There is often an attitude that there are “other compensations” for the behavior that the abused spouse is enduring.

Smart, savvy women are not immune to the effects of constant psychological battery. Compared to brainwashing by some, emotional and psychological abuse is more likely to occur in upscale marriages, and more likely to be admitted to, according to advisors we spoke with. Abuse impairs the ability to rely on one’s own judgment of reality and one’s confidence. This is one reason that it is so difficult for abused women to seek help, leave the abusive situation, or stay away from the abuser once she has left.

And it can be hard for a woman to be believed when she does seek help. Maton tells of another client who was accused of being the abuser. “She was required to go to a class on anger management, and the people who were in it were all drug addicts. Here was this elegant woman, who in lieu of going to jail, had to go to this class. Her husband got away with that because he was a pillar of the community.” There are other factors to consider, as well. Maton again: “I’ve also had a case where there was child abuse going on, and the abuser was a child psychologist. He was so clever, he was so good!” she recalls. She had to distance herself somewhat from the case, she says, “because it was so painful. Thank God that those kinds of cases do not happen very often.”

Deciding Whether to Get Involved

So do you want to insert yourself into the mix?

Maybe, and maybe not. It depends on your own knowledge, your comfort level with that knowledge, and the relationship you have with your clients. It might be uncomfortable to know your skills are being manipulated by an abuser, if that is the case.

You might be the only hope a woman has at that point in her life to get help. Even though there are laws in many states requiring the reporting of physical abuse by various authorities, that doesn’t always happen, especially in upscale families.

You might also be the only hope a woman has of getting out with something to start over. Iva Girtman, a certified divorce planner in Lakeland, Florida, tells of the client with a 49-year marriage who was convinced she would be “living under a bridge” if she ended the marriage. She was unaware that under the laws of the state of Florida she would be entitled to 50% of the assets. Just knowing they have rights, and that there are assets they are entitled to, might give victims the courage they need to do something about their situation.

There also may be children to consider. Even if there is not active child abuse, studies have shown that witnessing spouse abuse can have long-lasting effects on children and in fact constitutes child abuse in and of itself.

One last factor to consider is how dangerous it might be. Particularly in the case of a wife seeking a divorce, or having newly left a controlling spouse, there is a very real danger to the wife. The most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship, in fact, is when she is seeking her freedom. This can spill over to people who help the fleeing spouse.

What You Can Do

There are specific things you should and should not do, however, if you decide to get involved. Depending on whether the abuser, the abused, or the client couple are your clients will affect just what you can accomplish. (See Olivia Mellan’s column this month, “Abuse & Consent,” on page 131.)

“You have to be careful,” says Ostrow, the Chicago divorce attorney. “You cannot bandy about accusations without a solid core of evidence, but if you think something’s amiss, you should find an opportunity to subtly question the person quietly, and see if you can get them to acknowledge that something is more wrong than it ought to be and then steer them toward other people. Don’t try to solve it yourself; you don’t have the tools to do that–other than to steer some money their way.”

If the abuser is your client, you can mention that it is not wise for the abused client not to have any access to or control over money, particularly if there are children to be cared for. You can point out that if anything happens to the abuser, the abused person will be utterly ignorant of the couple’s money situation. Other than that, there is not much you can do when the abused is not your client.

If both parties are clients, you can try to speak with the abused spouse privately. In that kind of setting you can offer information on referrals to therapy, abuse centers, or support groups. The abused spouse may not even admit that there is a problem, which makes what you can do much more limited. The planner “has to find a way to communicate in a private manner with the spouse that is being abused,” says Ostrow. “If they’re able to do that and there appears to be a great deal of economic maneuvering that will financially disenfranchise or potentially do that to the controlled spouse, it may be time for that person to be referred to an attorney in terms of what they can do to protect themselves.”

Beyond that type of direct action, what Ostrow recommends is offering information. “Financial planners generally can set up a support system–they know therapists, counselors, lawyers–so they can get the person to start talking to people to start feeling protected and get access to protection.”

If you are a divorce planner dealing with a victim of abuse, don’t suggest mediation, or advise your client in favor of it, unless you know that the mediator is familiar with abusive situations and understands their dynamics.

Be wary. Don’t be direct in your criticism of the abusing spouse, to either party. Be sensitive to how your attempts at empowerment of the abused spouse are perceived by the abuser. “I’ve had a couple of occasions where clients have left because I was a threat to the controlling person’s ability to control,” Maton says. Remember, one of the symptoms of abuse is the abused’s need to defend her partner.

Another reason to refrain from direct criticism of the abuser is the very real danger that it may lead to the woman paying the price for your intervention. A beating or other retaliation may be the result of your defense of a woman in an abusive situation.

And if the client is the abused spouse? Once again, offer information on women’s shelters and therapy. Believe her. Lend a sympathetic ear. And help her educate herself on financial issues–often women coming from abusive relationships have no idea how to manage money, or how to take care of their financial needs. Maton’s strategy is this: “I try to step up their education, helping them learn Quicken, helping them get retrained to get a job, and to increase their self-esteem.”

Sometimes the best assistance is, as Ostrow says, “to suggest that the person get counseling and then step out of the picture.” It can be a slow process. Don’t assume that if you offered help and it wasn’t taken at that moment, that you had no effect. Looking back, many victims say that just the offer from a concerned third party gave them the courage to seek help.

Another View

One expert’s suggestions on how planners should handle suspected spouse abuse

Dr. Susan Weitzman used her experience and insights in writing Not To People Like Us (Basic Books, 2000), a book focusing on spouse abuse in upscale marriages. She has some additional insights to offer both on the problem of abuse itself and on what steps can be taken by someone not skilled in handling such situations.

Weitzman came to the work because of a patient she had been seeing while at the University of Chicago department of psychiatry. Her practice there included many doctors and doctors’ wives, as well as faculty, and one of her patients, the wife of a “very well-known professor,” terminated their sessions. Six months later she was back, unexpectedly pregnant, and told Weitzman a tale of abuse that included “atrocities,” says Weitzman: torture, being locked up, and numerous other abuses. “I was taken aback,” says Weitzman. “I had never once asked her about domestic violence.”

After that experience she began to ask about it with regularity, and found that it was far more common than she had thought. The literature, she says, specifically says that domestic violence cuts across all segments of society, but up until this particular incident it had not occurred to her to look for it at this level. And the literature does not relate statistics of upscale abuse (a term coined by Weitzman to describe the phenomenon). These upper-class, educated, cultured women suffering at the hands of their spouses and significant others do not talk about it, whereas most of the statistics come from hospital emergency rooms and shelters, where victims are more easily counted.

“We’re up against this cultural myth that domestic abuse doesn’t happen to people like us,” she says. But after her experience with the professor’s wife, and in response to her now-regular questions about it, she found that it was indeed happening in such circles. With the assistance of an attorney who handled divorces of couples with net worth of “six and seven figures,” she says, she was able to locate a research sample to begin her studies. Those studies led to her book (which apparently touched quite a nerve, since it went into its third printing within a week of release).

Of all the possible types of abuse, Weitzman says that except for murder and maiming, the scarring from verbal and psychological abuse is, in her opinion, far worse than that from physical abuse, whose scars heal relatively easily. “The labeling, punishing words, and threats that get leveraged are hard to erase,” she says. “Many women who have been divorced for years are still in the beginning stages of healing.” Among the psychological forms of abuse she has seen are insatiable demands, outrageous threats, including death threats, and unreasonable expectations.

And powerful, wealthy men can carry them out. “Any man can threaten a woman,” says Weitzman; “in this group–upper income–a man has the contacts and wherewithal to follow through on his threats.” She has heard quoted a statistic that in 70% of cases where an upper-income man goes to court to win custody of his children, he wins. “There are thousands of women who have not seen their children,” says Weitzman. A wealthy man has the resources to outlast his wife in court, hire a “dream team” of attorneys, and bring motion after motion that she is powerless to fight without his deep pockets. “I have one woman right now,” says Weitzman, “involved with the courts for abduction. Her husband won custody, but her children want to stay with her. Every time the kids run away to her, he has her put in jail.” And wealthy men can also put their partners away in institutions.

Signs of Abuse

Signs she suggests watching for, should you be concerned about a client, are in men, “controlling, belittling behavior and put-down humor when you see them as a couple.” You might see signs of coercion. In women, watch for signs of insecurity, hypervigilance, startled reactions, a sense of depression or resignation. “It wouldn’t feel like a clean, open relationship. I’ve had some cases,” she points out, “where the woman is the wealthy one and she’s still being battered.”

If you think it can’t have any relation to how you handle their money, she mentions the case of a woman featured on the television series 20/20. “She was incredibly wealthy,” says Weitzman, “and he forced her at knifepoint to sign over stock papers.” In another incident, a woman had inherited a lot of money from her parents and her husband took charge of it and dissipated it, stashing some in private accounts. And in a market downturn, such as we’ve been experiencing, it can be even more accentuated, because the upscale man who abuses often has his whole identity tied up in money and power. Loss of either one or the added frustration of a volatile market can accelerate or intensify his striking out against his partner.

“People in general,” says Weitzman, “need to become comfortable with the notion that abuse happens to people like us: upper educated, upper income. Breaking the myth and turning your own thinking around is the first step. Do an evaluation of how you feel about that.” Something else you need to consider, she points out, is what you will do if you do find it within your client base. “Suppose you find that your client is an abusive husband? Will you take a moral stand and not work with him? These men can be very charming.” Advisors have a decision to make along those lines, she says. “Will you have a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation? There are a lot of consequences to more education [about whether abuse occurs]. Familiarize yourself with the fact that it does happen, and see how you feel about that. Each individual has to make their own personal moral judgment on what stand they want to take.”

What You Can Do

As far as what you can do, she reiterates that it is a very touchy area. “It depends on the relationship the advisor has with his client and who the client is,” she says. But a lot also has to do with your own perception of your clients and abuse itself. “When I had started the Abuse Awareness League in 1992, I spoke with a gynecologist who worked with high-profile patients,” Weitzman relates. “I asked him that if he saw a woman come in with bruises, would he say anything. He said it was touchy and he didn’t want to upset his patients or open himself to litigation.” One thing she suggests you do is to leave information in your ladies’ room on domestic abuse. There is a test on her Web site ( that a woman can take to determine whether she is indeed being abused (many women do not admit it to themselves, or have not allowed themselves to consciously identify the treatment they receive as abuse). “Gentle education and opening the door is all you can do,” she says, unless you feel they’re in danger. The safety of the woman has to be one’s primary concern, and sometimes overt action can do more harm than good.

“Another thing to consider is that because of the nature of upscale violence, and because the upscale batterer can have such different faces in public and in private, the woman tends to blame herself. She isolates, and doesn’t get help, and because people disbelieve her she becomes more isolated and shamed. This is key when you approach [a victim]–very gingerly, very delicately. Not to be apologetic about it–’I'm sorry for asking’–but, ‘This may be delicate, but I feel compelled to say that I know this happens to people.’ It needs to be delicately handled.”

Senior Editor Marlene Y. Satter can be contacted at [email protected]. Additional reporting and book reviews focusing on women and money can be found at

(C)Copyright 2001 by Wicks Business Information