- Lawmakers and domestic violence survivors told Insider the IRS isn’t doing enough to support victims of financial abuse.
- About 99% of domestic violence survivors experience financial abuse, according to experts.
- Over the course of the pandemic, abusers pocketed stimulus checks and might direct much-needed child tax credits to their own accounts.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
For almost a year, Democratic and Republican lawmakers have been calling on the IRS to make it easier for domestic violence survivors to collect stimulus checks and tax returns.
Experts say almost all domestic violence survivors experience some form of financial or economic abuse, and lawmakers and IRS representatives continue to hold conversations about ways to prevent it.
But the two parties seem to be at odds. So far, the IRS has not sufficiently delivered on pleas to streamline filing processes, lawmakers and survivors of domestic violence said in interviews and emails with Insider.
Instead, stimulus checks and tax returns designated for survivors have gone straight to their abusers. And now, following President Joe Biden’s announcement that child tax credits are slated for rollout beginning July 15, survivors taking care of children worry their abusers will pocket that money as well.
Rimsha, a 28-year-old survivor who requested her last name be withheld due to safety concerns, said she hasn’t received any of the three stimulus checks Congress approved to offset the financial difficulties brought on by the pandemic. Her abuser filed his tax return jointly without her consent and collected them all instead, she told Insider.
Biden’s child tax credit announcement “makes me more anxious,” Rimsha said. “I’m actually more frustrated. Okay, IRS, you’re going to send that to my husband as well?”
Domestic violence survivors like Rimsha often double as caregivers who, over the past year, have had to adapt to inconvenient circumstances like remote learning while trying to earn a living and support their children.
Adding to the stress of making ends meet, the pandemic has exacerbated the financial abuse nearly all domestic violence survivors endure. Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, abusers have had more opportunities to pocket money that’s not theirs.
While missing out on supplemental income like stimulus checks or child tax credits, survivors also have to navigate tax season.
Even before the pandemic, abusers often tried to claim children on their tax returns to get more money back from the government, according to Teal Inzunza, program director for Economic Empowerment at the Urban Resource Institute, a nonprofit that provides services to domestic violence survivors. But as the country begins to reopen fully and slowly recovers from the economic recession, that extra financial support is more crucial than ever to survivors, experts say.
“Abusers will often fraudulently sign and claim the survivor on their tax return, therefore making it so that the survivor doesn’t have access to really necessary refunds or tax return information,” Inzunza said.
In attempts to get the stimulus checks she’s owed and ensure that all other funds like child tax credits are directed to her account, Rimsha has repeatedly engaged with IRS representatives.
So far, no one has been able to help her, she said.
IRS reps on the phone have used her husband’s joint tax filing as a justification for the issues Rimsha’s facing, she said, adding that she’s even provided the agency with copies of restraining orders against him to explain her case and separate her filings from his.
“It makes me upset,” she said. “Why are the abusers getting away with this?”
Because of the abuse she’s endured, Rimsha has been diagnosed with PTSD, she said.
A congressional push to derail abusers
In a June 2020 letter to the IRS, Democratic lawmakers outlined a series of changes the agency could implement to make it harder for abusers to gain access to accounts and private information that do not belong to them.
That letter, though nearly a year old, reflects many of the same struggles domestic violence survivors still deal with today.
Among the changes recommended was the implementation of a dedicated phone line that survivors could call to report address changes, and the creation of an individual PIN that would heighten security measures and prohibit abusers from accessing or changing their partner’s information. There’s also a suggestion to add information to aid survivors like Rimsha who filed a joint tax return but are no longer with their spouses.
These changes, several lawmakers told Insider, have not been adequately addressed or implemented. And as a result, there will be survivors at risk of losing child tax credits, among other financial support, the lawmakers behind that letter told Insider.
“Right now, these benefits are at risk of being stolen by their abuser unless the IRS takes additional concrete steps to support survivors of domestic violence,” the office of Sen. Sherrod Brown said to Insider in an email.
The changes outlined in the letter remain pertinent today, almost a year after it was sent off to the IRS, lawmakers argue. Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland told Insider changes to the way the IRS collects taxpayer information are needed to ensure survivors have access to “crucial resources” that make it easier for them to keep their information secure and out of the hands of their abusers.
Van Hollen’s office said the senator plans to follow up with the IRS to urge the agency to better support survivors of domestic violence, especially when it comes to financial abuse, a topic less commonly known, but widely prevalent.
About 99% of domestic violence survivors experience financial abuse, according to Blair Dorosh-Walther, program manager of economic empowerment at Safe Horizon, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to providing resources to survivors.
“The average survivor carries over $103,000 worth of debt throughout their lifetime due to the abuse,” Dorosh-Walther said. “This leaves taxpayers with an annual cost of $3.6 trillion due to domestic violence, which is higher than some countries’ GDP.”
Other lawmakers, like Sen. Cortes Masto of Nevada who led the June 2020 letter, said they also plan to continue advocating for survivors to minimize economic abuse. Her office is collaborating with the IRS on ways to revamp the agency’s systems so they benefit survivors over abusers.
“I have consistently called on the IRS to make sure their systems are working” to address economic abuse, Cortes Masto told Insider. “There are clear steps the IRS can take to make sure that survivors can receive the stimulus payments they are owed, and I’m going to keep pushing to make sure they do so.”
Other senators are taking different approaches. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, for example, is working on moving a bill through the Senate that “would reauthorize and improve a federal funding program which lapsed six years ago,” his office said.
“Through grants to states, tribal governments, and territories, survivors would receive services such as emergency shelter, crisis counseling, safety planning, and assistance recovering from financial abuse and housing insecurity,” his office told Insider.
The IRS did not respond to a request for comment.
Financial abuse takes many different forms
Sara Gardner, 29, considers herself both a survivor and an ally to people who’ve experienced domestic violence and financial abuse.
As a kid, her stepdad made large purchases under the guise of supporting Gardner, her mom, and younger sister.
“Growing up, it would be like, why are we not getting groceries but we bought a car? Or a new truck for my stepdad?” Gardner told Insider.
Her mom was always the parent who took care of tax filings, while her stepdad refused to contribute his portion. Only when lawmakers passed the first stimulus relief fund offering Americans $1,200 checks did her stepdad decide to contribute his information and file taxes, Gardner said. That’s when her mom learned he owed over $15,000 in federal and state taxes, Gardner said.
The anxiety of having to deal with that debt got to her.
“I cannot pay over $15,000 back to the government,” Gardner said her mom told her. “I don’t have that.”
Late last year, Gardner’s mom called while her husband was away on business and told her she had to leave him before he returned. Her mom has Parkinson’s disease and is immunocompromised, meaning she had to find isolated shelter where she wouldn’t run the risk of getting sick with COVID-19.
Having that much debt made her mom feel isolated and drove her to consider pursuing suspicious tax services that promised to “stop IRS debt,” Gardner said. Her mom’s credit score had dropped over 100 points, Gardner said.
After she left her husband, Gardner’s mom continued to receive stimulus checks, but they were written out to both her and her abuser because the IRS had their joint tax information on file. That meant both of them had to sign the check in order for the money to be deposited. Gardner’s mom didn’t want to see her abuser, and the onus fell on her to find a way to deposit the check safely and without meeting up with him.
She called the IRS, Gardner said, but a representative was unhelpful, telling her the agency couldn’t do anything since the two parents filed together. Ultimately, Gardner’s mom ended up calling their local bank and asking whether she could come in to sign the check separately from her now-ex-husband. She had to deceive him and promise she’d be there to sign the check with him, Gardner said.
She was able to connect her mom to a shelter program that advocated for her and helped her find a place.
But the financial abuse has left lingering emotional scars, Gardner said.
Her mom, for example, is afraid to spend money on anything other than bills. Because of the fear of going into further debt and losing control of her finances once more, her mom avoids spending leisurely or on personal items whenever possible.
“I buy her a grocery store gift card or a meal or a massage” as gifts, Gardner said, because she knows she will usually try not to buy these things on her own.
Money and personal finances can easily tie into feelings of self-worth and self-validation, experts told Insider. And events like tax season and periods of time that come with financial uncertainty like this pandemic can be major trigger points for survivors of domestic violence who’ve experienced economic abuse.
“With taxes, with credit reports, and then with the stimulus check, it’s just this ongoing reminder of the abuse,” Dorosh-Walther of Safe Horizon told Insider.
In Gardner’s case, her mom is “optimistic” about her future.
“I think she’s really looking forward to filing alone, to having a much more simple return,” Gardner said.