Is Economic Abuse a Factor in Divorce Cases in Virginia?

As attorneys specializing in helping partners of people who display high traits of narcissism with the special legal issues that arise during separation and divorce, we have a plethora of knowledge about domestic abuse disputes.

In our experience, spouses of financially abusive partners have been lulled into believing that they will never be able to become self-supporting after their divorce. A common question we hear from our clients is whether economic abuse is something judges in Northern Virginia consider during child custody and equitable distribution hearings. In this blog, we explain how economic abuse factors into divorce cases in the state of Virginia.

Economic Abuse Explained

Many controlling people use financial control as a form of intimidation to mask their deep fear of rejection and abandonment. After all, what better way to keep someone from abandoning you if they cannot survive without you?

In order to buy food and shelter, you need money. If your money is controlled by a narcissistic individual, your thinking may become, “I need money to buy food and to keep a roof over my head for my children and me. My spouse controls the purse strings and they have the power to control me. Therefore, I need my spouse.”

This thinking may become conditioned and deeply engrained in us because of our childhoods and upbringing. Most parents use financial control to keep their children from making bad decisions. However, some parents believe “bad decisions” are those that don’t comport with their own selfish desires. A child raised in this environment is more likely to believe that economic control is an act of love.

In most cases, victims of physical abuse have no doubts of the abuse, but mental or psychologic abuse is harder to discern. Economic or financial abuse is a form of psychological or mental abuse in Virginia. The Virginia Department of Social Services defines domestic violence as, “a pattern of behavior and a method of control … (where) one person dominates other household members by physical violence and/or psychological abuse.”

What Is Considered Economic Abuse?

Aside from physical and verbal abuse, the Department specifies that economic control may be indicative of an abusive relationship.

The following actions can be considered economic abuse:

  • Discouraging or forbidding one’s partner to work.
  • Withholding financial information.
  • Controlling the family’s finances & accounts.

Many controlling people use financial control as a form of manipulation to prevent their spouses from ever leaving them, or to covertly and overtly train their children to believe that the other parent can’t raise them alone. By threatening a child’s security, the child also becomes an innocent victim of the narcissist or other controlling person.

Financial abuse or economic abuse often takes the following forms:

  • A controlling spouse gives a stay-at-home parent a limited allowance with covert or overt consequences for exceeding the allowance.
  • A controlling spouse unilaterally makes all large financial decisions.
  • A controlling spouse opens separate accounts for their paycheck.
  • A controlling spouse buys fancy “toys” for themselves while depriving other family members of essential and non-essential purchases.
  • A controlling spouse chastises the other spouse for living an extravagant lifestyle when they know the other spouse’s lifestyle is anything but that.

Virginia Divorce Laws

In Virginia, a fault-based divorce may be awarded on the grounds of adultery, cruelty or desertion. Of these, the ground that would most likely encompass economic abuse is an allegation of cruelty. However, Virginia case law typically defines cruelty in this context as relating to physical harm, offering a definition of, “anything that tends to bodily harm and thus renders cohabitation unsafe.”

Unfortunately, in Virginia, it is unlikely that economic or financial abuse alone would be a sufficient ground for divorce, but in our experience, the control is usually accompanied by threats of violence, and we believe that would constitute sufficient grounds for proving cruelty.

Take the case of Ringgold v. Ringgold:

“The husband has never offered any physical abuse or violence, and the wife has not claimed to have ever had any reason to apprehend bodily hurt. But violence and apprehension of bodily hurt, though nearly always appearing in suits for divorce on the ground of cruelty, are not indispensable ingredients of that offense. The authorities generally, including those in our own State, wisely allow for exceptional cases in which there may be extreme cruelty without the slightest violence. Mental anguish, repeated and unrelenting neglect and humiliation, may be as bad as physical wounds and bruises, and may be visited upon an unoffending spouse in such degree as to amount to cruelty even in the very strict sense in which that term ought always to be used in the law of divorce.”

However, evidence of economic abuse is relevant in other contexts of domestic relations and divorce proceedings, including child custody and equitable distribution. In cases based on economic abuse, a judge may consider it a factor to provide you with a better economic division or visitation and custody rights than the high-conflict spouse.

Fairfax Family Law Attorney

At Keithley Law, we are here to assist clients throughout Fairfax with all of their divorce and family law matters. Clients have come to trust and value the integrity of our legal professionals because we understand how to help them overcome the complicated legal obstacles that might arise in their cases. Stop by our office today to discuss the best possible solutions to your problem.

Call (703) 454-5147 to request a consultation with an experienced divorce attorney in Fairfax, Virginia.

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