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Post: The Moneyist: ‘They have an uneasy truce’: How do I keep my girlfriend’s abusive estranged husband from getting his hands on any inheritance I leave her?

Dear Quentin,

My girlfriend left her abusive husband several years ago and moved 2,000 miles away. They have an uneasy truce, but he still finds ways to mess with her — even from that distance. She hasn’t a penny to her name, except whatever she would get in an eventual divorce.

They were married and lived together in Oregon, and her husband still lives there. She plans to divorce him eventually, but she is not ready to take that step for fear of what will happen at that time.

If I were to leave her a not-insubstantial sum in my will, and I died while she was still married, would there be any way to keep him from getting a share of that?

I thought about leaving the money to her adult son with the understanding that he would use it for her benefit. (He is quite trustworthy, and his mother’s husband is not his father.) But there again, the same question arises: Even if she did not have the money in her own hands, could that be seen as an asset that would be used to lower her share of the other assets to be divided in the divorce? And in any case, I would feel better if she got the money directly.


Dear Bewildered,

Even if your girlfriend were still married to her husband at the time of your death, and you left her a small fortune, her husband would likely not be entitled to a penny. Inheritance is generally not considered community or marital property as long as it is not commingled by, for example, being deposited in a joint bank account or used for improvements on a property that she owns with her husband. 

Alternatively, you could set up a revocable trust for your girlfriend and her son, providing an income for her and funds for her son’s education. This could help prevent her estranged husband from putting pressure on either party to access this money. In that case, you would find an independent, trusted third party as trustee: a trusted attorney, CPA or financial institution.

Your girlfriend may be experiencing long-term mental health consequences if she was involved in a prolonged abusive relationship with this man. He knows how to trigger her flight, fight or appease responses and instill fear in her. Fear is what keeps a bully powerful 2,000 miles away, along with smoke and mirrors.

Putting off a divorce will probably not make it any easier when the time comes. Delaying a divorce can be useful in limited circumstances, like if the couple owns a home and wishes to wait for a rise in property values before selling, or if there are children involved who need to become accustomed to living between two homes. But procrastination normally leads to more anxiety, and more analysis paralysis. 

Delaying a divorce can be useful in limited circumstances.

We all know the acronyms: Fear is Future Experiences Appearing Real or, even better, Face Everything and Recover. In life, any decisions made out of fear often lead to more regret and recrimination: selling stocks during a volatile market or rushing into the cryptocurrency market because of a fear of missing out. Therapy can help her unpack her fears. Taking an action to move on is freeing.

Sometimes, we become accustomed to stress and turmoil as a natural way of life. After all, modern life is stressful, even without dealing with a controlling and abusive partner. Your girlfriend left this relationship because she learned that she deserved more than what he had to offer. But walking out is only the first step. She now has to sever the emotional, financial and legal ties that bind her to this man.

Finding a secure and emotionally and financially stable relationship with you will help her regain her sense of self. The National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health is one organization that can provide support and resources. Only your girlfriend can decide that she deserves to be happy and leave the past behind, but she may need a team to help her do that. 

If you or someone you know has experienced domestic violence, call the free, confidential National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE (7233).

Yocan email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

More from Quentin Fottrell:

• ‘She was homeless and I was alone:’ I was befriended by a woman who moved into my home — she gradually stole $40,000 from me
• ‘He’s always been a shady character’: My uncle asked me to sign a document saying that I’d no rights to my grandfather’s land. I didn’t sign it. What now?
• ‘He walked out on our marriage 2 years ago and disappeared’: How do I serve my missing husband with divorce papers? He owes me thousands of dollars

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