After decades of advocacy by the modern domestic violence movement, institutions such as police departments, hospitals, and family law courts-although far from perfect in their responses-are now engaged in a conversation about domestic violence as a social problem, rather than denying its existence or significance. 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. As consumer lending has permeated American life, violent partners have begun using debt as a means of exercising abusive control, making the consumer credit system an unknowing party to domestic violence. This abuse is known as coerced debt.
Coerced debt can take a variety of forms. It ranges from abusers taking out credit cards in their partners' names without their knowledge, to forcing victims to obtain loans for the abuser, to tricking victims into signing quitclaim deeds for the family home. This Essay presents original, empirical data on the nature and scope of coerced debt, and explains how abusive partners use the complex consumer credit system to leave many victims of domestic violence with hundreds or thousands of dollars of coerced debt.