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Divorcing a Bully, Protecting Your Finances

Troels Graugaard | E+ | Getty Images

You don't have to be Rupert Murdoch, or his wife, Wendi Deng, to know that divorce can require as much preparation as a military campaign. And for anyone with a high-powered spouse, it's wise to be prepared for all-out war, and remember that the wisest strategy precedes actual conflict.

No matter how much money is involved—and controlling spouses sometimes make their way to the top of their professions—the money will be less important than the victory to that personality type, say the experts.

"This is a game to them, and they enjoy the game," said Lisa Helfend Meyer, a partner with the boutique law firm Meyer Olson Lowy & Meyers in Los Angeles.

One important caveat: If your controlling spouse is also a physical abuser, the first step—even if you're not ready financially—is to get yourself and your children out of the house.

(Read More: 7 Things Your Financial Advisor Should Never Say)


If you're physically safe, it's time to make your financial preparations—like General Patton planning to retake Europe. You're moving to reclaim your independent financial life. In short, have your own cash, be ready to do the unthinkable, and check your emotions at the door.

Here, in more detail, are five keys to divorcing a bully.

1. Squirrel away cash.

If you don't have money or an income stream of your own, start building it.

"This is a very difficult, very frustrating process," said Jeffrey Landers, founder of Manhattan-basedBedrock Divorce Advisors, which serves women exclusively, and author of "Divorce:Think Financially Not Emotionally."

"The women who have been most successful had access to their own funds, either though an inheritance or a job," he said.

But just because you have your own money, don't be fooled into thinking you have an easy road. Landers cited the case of a client who won a divorce from her wealthy husband after 2 1/2 years; he immediately filed an appeal and froze all her assets. She has already spent more than $2 million on her legal battle.

(Read More: 5 Questions About Bonds to Ask Your Financial Advisor)

2. Make copies of everything.

Even in fairly amicable divorces, spouses may sink to hiding money or siphoning it out of joint accounts. The effect is multiplied if you are leaving a controlling spouse. Financial records that show how much cash was in your accounts on the day of your separation can be taken into court. Just about all the property acquired during the marriage is joint, by the way, even the money in your spouse's retirement accounts. Make copies that show all those balances.

Typically, copies can be obtained from a financial institution—ask for balances as of a specific date—or from your accountant. Be aware that your spouse may figure out you're making copies and ask why.

"I tell women: Go through the drawers and go through the trash," said Helfend Meyer, who also suggests looking for financial records on the family computer. One client discovered her husband had been shredding the financial documents. She dug through the trash and taped the pieces together to get the information she needed.

3. Establish your own bank accounts (at a different bank), retirement accounts and credit cards.

You should have these, anyway. In fact, a red flag that you're with an overly controlling spouse is if you've tried to establish individual accounts and credit cards, and he or she has objected.

(Read More: 3 Ways Boomers Are Redefining Retirement)

4. Close your joint credit cards and joint bank accounts or take other protective measures.

In an amicable divorce, couples may maintain joint accounts to pay the mortgages on real estate holdings or maintenance for your children.

A controller will see a joint account as an opportunity to mess with you, perhaps by changing the payment dates on bills paid through the accounts. However, it may be difficult to close joint accounts with only one signature. You can simply not use the joint bank accounts; if you're worried your spouse will run up credit card bills in your name, take a big cash advance to the limit of the card, and pay it back at the time of the settlement, said Ilona Grenadier, who has been a divorce attorney in Northern Virginia for 45 years.

5. In many cases, it's in your interest to get into court as fast as you can.

"Once you're in court, the judge is the controller," Grenadier says. Among other things, a judge can award you living expenses and attorney's fees, which will help you if your assets are frozen or your spouse has drained accounts.

Finally—you'll have to let go of any of your own controlling tendencies. Because that spouse's main aim is to control you, the only way to escape that control is to divorce yourself from the emotions that enable his or her control. "Just say, 'Whatever,'" Grenadier advises. "Never go head-to-head with these guys. You need an outwardly passive stance."

In other words: Communicate to your spouse that you'd rather live in a hovel than stay married to him or her.

You probably won't end up living a hovel. But if you go in prepared to win at any cost, including by giving up the idea that you'll be treated fairly by him or the system, you are more likely to actually win.

—By Elizabeth MacBride, for CNBC.com.

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