Soon after the first round of stimulus payments went out in April, tax attorney Nancy Rossner was hearing from survivors of intimate partner violence: They were being blocked from receiving the relief they were owed.
“We started getting calls from survivors and advocates for survivors whose stimulus payment was deposited or sent to their former partner, who was typically their abuser, and they were refusing the survivor access to the payments,” said Rossner, a senior staff attorney for the Community Tax Law Project, a Virginia-based tax clinic that aides low-income families.
Rossner recalled one of the first women who reached out to her. The woman had recently divorced her abusive husband, taking the children with her. Before the pandemic, the pair had decided to file a joint 2019 tax return. When the Internal Revenue Service issued the relief payment tied to the Cares Act — to date, still the most substantial direct financial relief the federal government has given Americans — her share was sent to her ex-husband.
Day cares were closed; shelters and other services for survivors were shuttering or drawing down their operations. That alone would have been challenging for her client, Rossner noted. But because of the relief check her ex-husband was withholding, she wasn’t able to move on.
“This was one more thing that he was able to hold over her head and use to try to punish her or control her,” Rossner said.
Rossner would encounter many more clients like her, as would other tax attorneys and service providers for victims of domestic abuse. Ten months after the coronavirus pandemic first disrupted life in the United States, some survivors are still waiting on economic relief they desperately need, advocates say. This issue highlights the need to develop a broader understanding of what constitutes domestic abuse, they say, including economic abuse. With the pandemic still raging — and talks of new relief payments on the horizon — policymakers want financial institutions and policymakers to develop specific, tailored solutions to aid survivors.
“It’s such a vulnerable population that really doesn’t have a lot of other options. And what minimal stimulus that is going out there, they’re not even getting that,” said Rossner. “It’s really sad, and they’re suffering.”
Many survivors were already living in precarious economic situations before the pandemic, said Melina Milazzo, senior policy counsel at the advocacy organization National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV). She noted that 99 percent of survivors of intimate partner violence have experienced economic abuse, defined by NNEDV as “subtle and overt” attempts to hide financial information from a victim, or to limit their ability to access finances and other assets and resources. Survivors are often underbanked, she said, and if they do have access to a bank account, it’s often shared with their abuser, who can monitor their spending and debits, as well as make withdrawals and transfers.
That vulnerability is why economic abuse so often goes hand in hand with other forms of intimate partner violence, said Nina Olson, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group the Center for Taxpayer Rights. A former U.S. taxpayer advocate, Olson has worked on behalf of survivors as well as helped train IRS workers to be more sensitive to domestic violence issues that may crop up in the tax code.
“The financial abuse is just another expression of the power and control that is key to an abusive relationship,” she said.
Economic abuse and other forms of violence share key themes: an emphasis on secrecy and a need to control or restrict another person’s freedom. Survivors may have little to no financial history because everything is in their partner’s name and control. They may not be aware what assets they have, or what documents have been filed on their behalf. They don’t know whether taxes and other fines have been paid. Without this information, survivors are left with little financial means to extricate themselves from a harmful partnership, Olson said.
For survivors, stimulus payments aren’t just what they need to weather a pandemic. They can be a pathway out of abuse.
“Flexible cash assistance is one of the most important and impactful ways that we can directly help the survivor get out of a very precarious situation,” Milazzo said.
Amy Durrence, director of systems change initiatives at FreeFrom, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that seeks to provide financial security to survivors, echoed this.
“The number one obstacle to safety for survivors is financial insecurity,” Durrence said. She cited one recent study FreeFrom conducted on the ways the coronavirus had impacted survivors financially. What researchers found was that unrestricted cash payments to survivors — like the federal emergency relief payments — were absolutely critical.
FreeFrom also asked survivors how much money they felt they needed to stay safe from the person abusing them. The average amount reported back by survivors? $730 — less than two-thirds of that first stimulus check.
Olson argues that there are ways for the government to ensure survivors recoup that money, but it will be challenging.
Part of the current problem stems from the timing of the stimulus payments, which were first deposited into taxpayers’ accounts in April. Many Americans had yet to file their 2019 taxes by the time the pandemic caused widespread shutdowns in March, so if someone fled their partner since their 2018 return was filed, it was unlikely the IRS would have their updated information. That means relief payments were mailed to homes they no longer lived in or deposited into accounts they did not have access to.
In quite a few cases, abusers may have been committing tax fraud even before withholding the relief payments from their former partners, Olson said. An abusive person can coerce their partner into filing a tax return on their behalf or forge their signature. They might file a joint tax return and keep their partner’s refund for themselves, or falsely claim their spouse as a dependent.
The IRS has recognized this form of fraud in the past, adopting a policy in 1998 called “innocent spouse” relief, in which someone can be absolved of liability if their current or former spouse improperly reported or omitted items on a joint tax return. Part of the impetus for this policy, Olson said, was Congress recognizing that abusers were unfairly saddling their partners with tax debt.
But despite survivors and advocates flagging this issue for the IRS and the Treasury, as well as Congressional lawmakers, new policies have yet to emerge to fully support survivors now, or help them avoid this problem in the future. After the first stimulus checks, survivors had only two options to reclaim the payments they were owed. They could fill out a 2019 tax return that could supersede their 2018 filings, as long as they filed before the July 15 deadline. Or, they could receive a tax credit for their 2020 tax returns, though this applies only to returns the IRS determines were filed illegally because they were coerced or forged by an abusive partner, and would require them to go back and forth with the agency to prove the filing was illegal.
Tax advocates like Olson and Rossner want to see the IRS adopt a clear process for survivors to flag that they have experienced tax fraud because of an abusive relationship, such as filling out a standardized form. They also want to see the department reverse its stance on reissuing payments to survivors. Olson noted that in the case of stolen refunds or identity fraud, the IRS has reissued those payments, paying for them from an allotted fund.
In their federal policy proposals, FreeFrom recommended designating a survivor stimulus protection hotline within the IRS to handle stimulus payments, as well as allowing in-person payment pickups rather than relying solely on mailed checks or deposits, which can be intercepted by an abusive partner.
But there is also an urgency to think more expansively about domestic violence, and to take a multifaceted approach in supporting the people impacted by it, experts said. Several states, including California and Hawaii, have moved to expand their definition of abuse beyond physical violence to include forms of coercive control, such as mental, emotional and economic abuse. The 2018 Violence Against Women Act, which stalled in Congress but is now expected to be revisited, sought to broaden the definition of domestic violence in a similar way.
This is crucial, Durrence said, because you can’t address a problem without defining it.
Recognizing economic abuse as its own form of violence could also allow for the kind of policies that will help survivors before they reach a crisis point, she added. These include broader policies that could disproportionately help survivors, such as child tax credits, minimum wage and equal pay initiatives, and unemployment insurance. But it also includes proposed “safe days,” such as those proposed by the Biden administration, which would allot time for survivors to seek legal help for an abusive situation, or seek a protective order.
“The infrastructure that exists in the United States to support survivors is not very resilient because it’s very unilateral,” Durrence said. “It’s just through shelters. It’s just through criminal justice response.”
If all remains the same, survivors severely impacted by the pandemic could be stuck in a difficult situation where they must petition the IRS directly to give them the money they’re owed, go through potentially lengthy litigation processes to get their relief checks, or get back in contact with their abuser.
“It’s an untenable situation,” Olson said. “It basically perpetuates the abuse.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to Melina Milazzo. We regret the error.