Marital Debt Project
The Marital Debt Project began in 2018 through an Equal Justice Works Fellowship, sponsored by Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP. It has since become a permanent program offered by Her Justice, led by staff attorney Naomi Young, Esq.
The Marital Debt Project promotes economic justice by providing legal services and other financial advocacy to women living in poverty and facing economic crisis caused by divorce, domestic abuse and consumer debt.
“There’s this assumption that if you marry someone, you’re consenting to let them do whatever they want to your body, to your identity — or to your credit.”
– Naomi Young, Esq., Staff Attorney
Who We Are
Her Justice stands with women living in poverty in New York City by recruiting and mentoring volunteer lawyers to provide free legal help to address individual and systemic legal barriers. This includes navigating the legal divorce process. We believe that divorce can and should provide a pathway to independence. We work to create a system that enables women seeking divorce to achieve autonomy and financial stability, through a process that is as easy as possible.
The Marital Debt Project can step in to represent a woman in both her divorce and in lawsuits by the creditors. The goal of the project is to enable women to walk away from a divorce with financial freedom
While divorce should provide a pathway to freedom and independence, for too many women it leads to a life in poverty. A major issue in a divorce is splitting up “marital debts” between the two spouses. Generally, marital debts are debts acquired during the marriage by both partners. However, abusive partners may trap the family in debt through financial abuse – such as the withholding of income, identity theft, and forcing a partner to take out debt in their own name. This reality is common for many women. In fact, over 1 in 3 survivors receiving legal services related to domestic violence in New York City also have a consumer debt legal issue.* Survivors who escape abusive situations often continue to suffer from the harmful effects of their partner’s financial abuse. For example, consumer debt perpetuates poverty by labeling debtors with bad credit scores that can significantly impact their lives and opportunities. For domestic violence survivors living in New York City, consumer debt may have the devastating impact of forcing women into shelters or back into homes with their abuser because landlords deny housing applications with poor credit scores.
The Marital Debt Project expanded Her Justice’s existing services for women in New York City’s five boroughs by providing holistic legal representation and financial advocacy in consumer debt defense cases and in divorces.
Her Justice may provide free legal representation and economic advocacy to eligible clients who:
- Identify as women; and
- Report household income at or below 200% of the federal poverty line; and
- Want to file for divorce or have been served with divorce papers by their spouse; and
- Accrued consumer debt during their marriage (including credit card debt, student loans, pay day loans, car loans, medical bills, utility bills, rental arrears, etc.)
In addition to providing representation in the divorce, the Marital Debt Project may provide representation, advice and counsel, brief legal services, and/or advocacy with creditors for the following issues:
- Credit report review, debt assessment, and comprehensive approaches to identity theft;
- Defense in civil court lawsuits brought by creditors;
- Settlement negotiations with creditors.
If you are considering divorce and are unsure about whether your spouse opened accounts in your name or how much debt you have, then we can help you run a credit report and assess your debt situation and divorce.
The Marital Debt Project may provide free legal representation in the divorce, financial advocacy, and defense against your creditors.
Impact by the Numbers:
Between 2018 and 2020, the project:
- Provided advice, counsel, and brief services to over 259 people
- Provided direct representation and co-mentorship on 20 legal cases
- Educated 89 community members on financial abuse and consumer debt through numerous presentations and workshops
- Trained 166 individuals at partner organizations
- Ran credit reports for 52 clients
Our clients are our biggest teachers, their experiences inform our programmatic practices, policy work and our vision for the future. Let’s hear from them.
Tanya’s Story: Stolen Stimulus Check
Throughout her marriage, Tanya* suffered severe abuse from her husband, including physical violence, threats, stalking and harassment. She separated from her husband shortly after a particularly violent incident in 2015 and, since then, has been living on Social Security Income (SSI Disability) and food stamps.
When she filed for divorce, her husband retaliated by renewing his abuse, harassing and stalking her. When Tanya applied for affordable housing and was denied because of her husband’s income, she discovered that he had also committed identity theft
against her by filing joint tax returns for each of the five years they were separated, forging her signature without her knowledge or consent. She made a futile attempt to get help from the IRS. Tanya reported the identity theft to the New York Police Department, but the police would not file the report against her husband. Assisted by Her Justice, she then submitted an identity theft report to the Federal Trade Commission.
Advised by Her Justice counsel that identity theft is an enumerated family offense in the Family Court Act that entitled her to an order of protection, even without the physical abuse and harassment, Tanya petitioned for an order of protection and agreed to a nine-month stay away order of protection, expecting that it would protect her until the divorce was finalized. However, a few months, later, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the shutdown of court operations and the divorce action is indefinitely delayed.
In the meantime, her husband has continued to gain financially from the misuse of her identity. In April, the Internal Revenue Service deposited the CARES Act Tax Relief Credit stimulus checks for both Tanya and her husband in his bank account-pursuant to direct deposit information he had included in the fraudulently filed joint return for 2018. He did not inform Tanya of his receipt of the funds. She found out only when she contacted the tax authorities to inquire about the stimulus check she was due but had not received.
Tanya’ s experience demonstrates the need for, and benefits of, the holistic services Her Justice provides through the Marital Debt Project. Her Justice has advised Tanya with respect to credit and debt issues, including the identity theft. Through the effective advocacy of the Equal Justice Works Fellow working on the Marital Debt Project, Tanya’s $1,200 stimulus check has been returned to her, and Her Justice is currently representing her in the divorce action and with her request for an extension of the order of protection.
*name changed to protect client confidentiality
The Marital Debt Project in the News:
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