In April, singer and television personality Melanie “Mel B” Brown filed a restraining order against her husband Stephen Belafonte. The order claimed that during the course of their 10-year marriage, Belafonte physically abused her to the point of hospitalization, impregnated their nanny, recorded their sexual encounters without her knowledge, and then blackmailed her with the videos. Fast-forward a few months to July, and a California judge ordered Mel B to pay $40,000 a month in temporary spousal support and $140,000 for Belafonte’s attorney fees.
Although the judgment is likely temporary until the abuse case is settled, this isn’t the first time a high-profile woman has had to pay her abuser. Tina Turner famously gave up her studio, parts of her publishing companies, cars, and real estate, to her long-time abuser and husband, Ike Turner, in exchange for “her peace of mind.” Even among non-celebrities, it’s an issue. In 2012, a San Diego woman named Crystal Harris made headlines after she was ordered her to pay her husband alimony, after he had been convicted of sexually assaulting her.
Jeff Landers, a divorce attorney who specializes in representing women who are going through financially complex divorces, says:
It’s bad enough to be abused and humiliated. The ultimate insult is that now you have to pay your abuser alimony. There are instances in which the evidence is such that a judge may not require an abused, wealthier spouse, to pay alimony, but often it’s two separate issues. In the mind of the courts, the abuse has nothing to do with unwinding your marriage partnership financially.
Most of his clients are well-off, and about one-third of them have experienced some form of emotional or physical abuse. He adds that in a few states like North Carolina and Georgia, a judge will consider abuse and infidelity if the person who is supposed to receive alimony is the offender, but no-fault states like New York, California, Pennsylvania, and most others, do not usually consider abuse, infidelity, or any other offense when granting alimony unless the spouse has already been convicted of the offense.
Because judges have wide discretion in family law proceedings and the law varies by state, there is no catch-all legal advice to offer women protection, but Rachel E. Gottlieb, a senior vice president at UBS who specializes in financial planning during divorce, emphasizes that it is always best to get out of the relationship as soon as possible. “The shorter time you are married, the shorter amount of time he will be entitled to alimony, and you will stop contributing to marital assets sooner thus having less to divide; the other reality is that he can incur debt that you may be responsible for paying off as well.” And for women who are not the primary breadwinners, one of the ways they can better protect their financial well-being before and during marriage is just to simply be aware. Gottlieb suggests knowing where accounts are held, as well as understanding and staying involved in financial decisions and insurance policies.
Unfortunately, alimony is just one of the many the legal realities that fail abused women. According to the CDC, nearly half of the homicidal deaths of women under the age of 44 are at the hands of current or former male intimate partners. Women ages 20 to 24 are at the greatest risk of experiencing nonfatal intimate partner violence and are often unmarried to their abusers. Family members often don’t believe when victims confide in them about their charismatic abusers, and law enforcement and judges are frequently skeptical of abuse claims from women.
In Mel B’s case, she and her husband are also in a custody battle over their 5-year-old daughter, and according to Linda Seabrook, general counsel at Futures Without Violence, custody battles are the most common way the law works against abused women. “Custody determinations and visitation arrangements are often made without understanding the dynamics of domestic violence and its impact on the family, and without regard to the dangerousness of the abuser. Generally speaking, family court is often a punitive place for victims where things like 'friendly parent provisions' and shared parenting plans make it impossible for many victims to escape from the control of their abuser or reach a place of safety.”
Seabrook suggests that women reach out to organizations that specifically work with domestic violence victims. “When a victim is ready and can do so safely, talking with a trained advocate can provide her with options and help with planning to improve her safety. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is staffed by advocates who can talk through options and a victim’s situation and provide a referral to local resources for assistance.”
People who want to help domestic violence victims should visit a local shelter or domestic violence services program and ask how you can become more involved. Fundraising or organizing friends to donate clothing, toiletries, or make backpacks for kids staying at a shelter are other practical ways to help.
And for those interested in changing the laws to ensure that fewer women end up in situations like Mel B, Seabrook suggests going through legislative channels. “The best thing is to contact the local domestic violence organization or state coalition to find out what bills they are working on or tracking and ask how to amplify their efforts.”
National Organizations for Women In Abusive Relationships:
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Battered Women’s Justice Project
Futures Without Violence
Love Is Respect
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Phone: (202) 467-8714
National Network to End Domestic Violence