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.
Online and Hotline
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Information and referrals for women
Cybergrrl Safety Net
Resources on women’s issues
Violence Against Women
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
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.