Women lumped with exes' debts after escaping abuse

Australian women are being lumped with their abusive partners' crippling debts as financial services field increasing calls for help.

The Australian Taxation Office is frequently being roped into situations in which men put their company tax debts into their current or ex-partners' names, UNSW researchers revealed on Wednesday.

Women often discovered the debts, linked to companies they did not know they were signatories to, long after escaping their relationships.

The researchers said the tax office then chased women over the debts, particularly as it played catch-up after the COVID-19 pandemic.

the Australian Government Taxation Office in Sydney
Researchers say the tax office often chases women over debts incurred by abusive former partners. (April Fonti/AAP PHOTOS)

"If Australia is serious about tackling this insidious problem, we must urgently modernise the tax system to identify and support victim-survivors - rather than inadvertently being complicit in enabling and exacerbating the abusive tactics of perpetrators," lead researcher Associate Professor Ann Kayis-Kumar said.

"The United States has had innocent spouse relief for decades, including specific tax relief for victim-survivors of intimate partner financial abuse so that the tax office only pursues the person actually responsible for creating the debt in the first place.

"We don't - we should."

The UNSW researchers called on the federal government to switch debts to the people who created them and noted intimate partner financial abuse cost Australia more than $10.9 billion annually.

Advocacy organisation The Zahra Foundation, which provides women with free programs and services to escape abuse and poverty, helped 1000 women in its first seven years.

In the past year alone, it has helped 600 women, with the need for financial counselling climbing by 40 per cent in 2024.

The organisation on Wednesday launched an education campaign to raise awareness of financial abuse, with chief executive Kelly-ann Tansley calling on the federal government to expand the service to become a national financial abuse phone counselling line.

"The Zahra Foundation two years ago was ready to go and expand our services nationwide," Ms Tansley told reporters.

"We had a commitment in the budget from the Opposition and unfortunately two years on, we're still waiting for our government to support us to get this essential service out to Australian women in a time when they need it more than ever."

Australian currency
The Zahra Foundation says one in six Australian women experience financial abuse. (Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS)

Shelley, who did not provide her surname, told reporters she fled domestic violence with her three teenagers and six-month-old baby about a decade ago.

She could not afford to rent and all her money was taken from a joint account by her ex-partner before she was pushed into a property settlement, she said.

"I was so worried that he was going to take my super because that was the only thing that I had left," Shelley said.

"I settled for whatever he wanted for two reasons: one being that I could not afford ongoing legal fees.

"The other (was) that I was so traumatised, and scared, I had no capacity to think about my future.

"I just wanted it all over."

Signs of financial abuse included a person's inability to open a bank account in their own name, spend money without their partner's permission, get a job or access education, or access government payments, The Zahra Foundation said.

Men putting credit cards or credit services in their partners' names was also a sign of financial abuse, as was women's money disappearing without their knowledge or an explanation.

One in six Australian women experienced financial abuse, the foundation said.

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