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How to handle situations of abuse

Matt Pais

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What to do when you think clients may be experiencing domestic violence.
Amy Neeson Photography

A JOURNALIST covering a murder trial hears testimony about a controlling husband who was both physically and financially abusive toward his wife, who he is suspected of killing. It reminds the journalist of a similar situation, and she sends her friend a short but powerful text:

“This is your husband,” she wrote. “You have to get out.”

That friend, a high-profile investigative reporter, started skimming $30 each week off her grocery budget to buy gift cards from local supermarkets so she would have money to spend on groceries after she left her husband. Even after she left, the stress contributed to a stroke and adult-onset epilepsy.

This reporter was one of the people Amanda Cassar, AFP, Dip FP, a seven-year MDRT member from Burleigh Heads, Queensland, Australia, interviewed for her book “Financial Secrets Revealed.”

“She came into the relationship with property and money in the bank, and by the time she left the relationship, she had nothing,” Cassar said. “It sparked a fascination in me: How often does this happen, and how can we help people in this situation?”

Based in an area where many retirees move, Cassar has two businesses: a traditional financial planning practice for families and small businesses, as well as a secondary outfit specializing in strategies for people moving into residential care facilities. She cites a U.S. study from the National Coalition of Domestic Violence that up to 99% of victims of domestic violence also suffer financial abuse like the reporter Cassar interviewed.

“I started asking questions, if people had ever heard of cases like this,” she said. “Everyone went, ‘Yeah, I know someone this has happened to.’”

So what can you do as an advisor if you suspect that a prospect or client is in an abusive situation?

It’s a really difficult role to play, but we’re in such a position of trust that our clients are telling us things they often don’t tell anybody else.

First, learn how to spot red flags. If one person is constantly talking over their partner during the meeting and the suppressed person seems afraid to share their opinion, this could be a sign of abuse. In addition, notice if all of the assets are in one person’s name and the other is left out, or the spouse is unnamed as a beneficiary.

“It’s a fact-finding situation; we just need to be aware of what to look for,” said Cassar, who estimates that she has advised clients in about a dozen cases of abuse. “And understanding estate provisions to make sure a partner will be provided for.”

Warning signs can come in a number of forms, not just physically but emotionally. A partner may control the other person’s spending, restricting their purchases and/or preventing them from having a bank account. (Cassar insists that assets should never be entirely linked — every individual should have an account of their own in addition to joint accounts for a couple/family.) The breadwinner also may forbid the partner to work and threaten to leave to exert dominance over the pair’s financial situation.

Wealthy women in particular can be targets. Cassar notes a manager with her broker-dealer who was swept off her feet by a charismatic man and ended up $1.2 million in debt and attacked by the man on her boat.

Second, know what you can do about it. For starters, understand that some people are reluctant to discuss these situations, while others are grateful for a sympathetic ear. Cassar said there can be a lot of shame and embarrassment, especially in cases of elder financial abuse where a trusted loved one is involved and could be prosecuted.

“It’s a really sensitive area and a fine line to walk, to maintain their dignity when they are feeling so vulnerable and hurt and lost and trying to get resolution,” she said. “To continue the conversation, it might mean calling the wife separately when I know the husband will be at work to say, ‘I had these concerns after you left the other day and just wanted to touch base.’”

Even if the person does not want to make any changes, you can talk about asset protection, recommend talking to a professional or confidant, and create a file note while continuing to observe the client’s relationship. You can call financial/elder abuse hotlines to describe what you’ve witnessed and ask for guidance. Cassar also recommends speaking to your broker-dealer to understand what steps to take if you see a case of financial abuse.

Being prepared also includes having relationships with domestic-violence lawyers and estate-planning lawyers who can help in appointing new guardians or revoking powers of attorney. Because abuse happens far more often than anyone would want to believe.

“I did a local radio segment, and I didn’t know when it was going to air. Boy did I know when it had, because the phone calls I received that afternoon from a lot of victims of financial abuse were so distressing,” Cassar said.

“It’s a really difficult role to play, but we’re in such a position of trust that our clients are telling us things they often don’t tell anybody else. We really need to have the tools in our toolkit so we can assist.”

Contact: Amanda Cassar


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