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For JoHanne DuFort, getting beaten by her husband caused physical wounds that gradually healed. But even 20 years later, the financial wounds remain. DuFort graduated with a master’s degree in fine art from the University of Michigan in 1986. She didn’t earn much money as a part-time art professor, but even so she tried to set aside money each month to stay current on her student loans.

Then she got married. Suddenly all her attempts at financial responsibility were crushed.

“My husband was extremely abusive to me and my children,” DuFort wrote in response to a Credit.com story. “He would not permit me to use our household income (my contribution was meager) to pay on my student loans.”

She finally escaped her abusive husband in 1996, but the damage was done. By 2000 she declared bankruptcy, only to discover that a rule change in 1998 had struck down earlier laws that allowed student loans to be discharged after seven years of repayment. The loans continued to accrue interest during her three-year bankruptcy process, however, and now she owed more than $85,000.

Now, a full 20 years after graduation, DuFort is getting hounded by debt collectors, and the stress is causing serious problems in her second marriage. The lingering debt and the aggressive collectors are combining “to make our lives a living hell!” DuFort says.

DuFort is not alone. There may be a strong correlation between domestic violence and credit abuse, according to Angela Littman, an assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Law who calls such abuse “coerced debt.” In a paper published recently in the California Law Review, Littman writes that even though society has become significantly more vigilant in recognizing domestic violence and protecting victims, the connection between violence and financial abuse remains largely unexamined.

“Despite this growth in awareness, a new form of domestic violence has developed, one which has not yet been recognized and which needs to be addressed: financial abuse through consumer credit,” Littman writes.

Domestic financial abuse can take many forms, Littman finds, including using a spouse’s identity to obtain new credit cards and personal loans. Littman finds that in a survey of 55 domestic violence advocates, 51 agreed that violence and coerced debt go hand-in-hand. According to one social worker, 70 percent of victims also suffered some form of credit abuse.

“There’s definitely a manipulation of finances that happens in almost all of the cases,” a lawyer told Littman during her research.

Given that shared, joint and co-signed credit cards and loans affect both spouses’ credit scores equally, it’s no surprise that bad behavior by one can cause immediate, lasting damage to the other.

“This is one of the many reasons why I think taking out credit individually is a good idea,” says Barry Paperno, a credit scoring expert and Credit.com’s community director. “Doing otherwise is exposing yourself to a good amount of debt for which you will be on the hook for many years.”

If you’re a victim of domestic violence, or if you know a victim, here’s how to minimize the damage to your credit whether the abusive relationship is still continuing, or immediately after it ends.

Get Your Own Credit. All married people should have credit accounts in their own names, without their spouse as a co-signer or sharing in a joint account, Paperno says. This is especially true for people in abusive relationships, where the likelihood of lasting credit damage is especially high. “This is a very good reason for having credit in your name only, because if you have a joint credit card the abuser can run that up and the abused spouse is equally responsible for it,” Paperno says.

Plan Your Escape. If you’re planning to escape an abusive relationship, take steps beforehand to protect your credit. “Before you do anything else, close any credit accounts that you share,” Paperno says. “If they’re an authorized user, just remove them. While it won’t clear you of any charges already made, you can avoid new charges.”

Once You’re Free, Act Fast. As soon as you’ve escaped an abusive relationship, move quickly to establish credit in your own name. This is especially important if you suspect your spouse might run up credit card charges or take out new loans in your name as retaliation, since acting quickly will allow you to get new accounts before your partner’s misdeeds get reported on your credit history, Paperno says.

Start Small. If your credit is already hurt by a violent spouse, you may not be able to get the low interest rate or the good credit card deals you once qualified for. One of the easiest ways to start rebuilding credit is by using cash to open a new, secured credit card. After that, you may be able to move up to a retailer’s card, which often have lower credit score limits than traditional bank-issued cards.

Monitor. As soon as you make the split, start monitoring your credit closely. If you fear continued damage, you could place a credit freeze or a fraud alert on your credit report. This will make it more difficult for you to get credit or make new charges, but it also makes it harder for your abusive spouse to continue racking up new debt in your name. “It could be more of a hassle for them to get credit,” says Gerri Detweiler, Credit.com’s consumer credit expert. “But it may be one of the most important things they can do financially so they don’t have to fight new creditors over debts they shouldn’t have to pay.”

Image: Chiara Cremaschi, via Flickr

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