Financial Freedom Fighter

By Stephanie Case

A few weeks before Donald Trump was inaugurated as president, Forbes asked some of its 30 Under 30 honorees in the fields of law and policy to name one thing they would ask of the new commander-in-chief.

“End the war on women’s health and, instead, use those resources to fight violence against women,” answered Venice attorney Sonya Passi.

While at UC Berkeley School of Law, Passi founded the Family Violence Appellate Project, which provides free legal services for victims of domestic violence. Last year she launched FreeFrom, an innovative Venice-based nonprofit that goes beyond emergency shelter to help victims build financial stability so they can afford to leave toxic relationships for good.

According to a 2010 study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every four American women will face severe physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime.

“When you talk about one in four, that means your neighbors, someone in your family, someone you went to high school with,” says Passi. “It hits close to home.”

Yet, while domestic violence is embedded into the fabric of our communities, the truth of survivors’ experiences and the factors that keep them in danger, Passi says, remain largely misunderstood. Partners who endure abuse are frequently blamed and reduced to stereotypes: the pushover, the hopeless romantic, the exaggerator.

“The myth is: survivors just stay because they’re weak; they stay because they’re in love; they stay because it’s not that bad,” says Passi. “But the No. 1 reason survivors say they stay in abusive situations is because they can’t afford to leave.”

For most victims, no matter their tax bracket, safety comes at a very high a price tag.

“A lot of people think [being trapped in a violent relationship] is a low-income problem. That is not true,” explains Passi. “They think, ‘Women from wealthy communities can afford to leave.’ But what is so often the case is the woman in that wealthy community has not a penny to her name. … I meet so many survivors who were the sole breadwinner, and yet they never had more than a dollar in their pocket because the abuser would pick up their paycheck and control their wages.”

Financial abuse — blocking a partner from earning or accessing money — occurs in the overwhelming majority of domestic violence cases, Passi attests. It manifests in a variety of forms: pressuring the partner into being a homemaker; physically assaulting them for trying to open a checking account; stirring up trouble at their place of work, causing them to lose their job; committing credit fraud against them.

In one case, Passi recounts, an abuser surreptitiously took out more than 50 magazine subscriptions in his wife’s name but had the issues delivered to a random address, where they sat unread. In three years’ time, he’d racked up $30,000 in debt under her name and never paid off a cent,crippling her chances at financial autonomy should she dare to leave.

“It makes sense,” explains Passi. “Domestic abuse is about control, and the way to take away someone’s freedom is to take away their financial freedom.”

For survivors who do leave, it’s not cheap.

“When you think about picking up and completely relocating, you’re not only talking about breaking a lease,” Passi says. Securing a new apartment means a security deposit, plus first and last month’s rent — that is, if your partner hasn’t tanked your credit score, shattering any good standing with a potential landlord.

“You leave with as much as you can carry; maybe that’s a whole carload, and maybe that’s whatever you can hold in your hands,” Passi says. If you flee on foot, she adds, that could mean buying a house’s worth of new furniture, new clothes, and a new vehicle. If your abuser installed tracking technology on your cell phone or laptop, you may need to buy new electronics.

If that shopping haul doesn’t sink you, legal costs might: filing a restraining order, hiring a divorce lawyer, waging a custody battle. The costs of mental health care to help survivors and their children process the trauma of the abuseadd up, too.

“Domestic violence survivors spend probably every last dollar they have trying to stay safe,” says Passi.

Once that last dollar is spent, many live out of their cars or take refuge on the street; domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness in US women and children.

In a cruel irony, this abuse-induced poverty often sends children back into the care of their violent parent. When deliberating custody cases, “judges are trying to figure out: who can actually feed this child? Who can keep this child safe financially? So, frequently, they end up giving custody to the abusive parent,” Passi says.

To Passi, these cracks in the legal system –allowing survivors to flail financially, and abuse to go unchecked –are unacceptable. She’s rallied against them since she was 16 years old, spearheading her all-girl prep school’s Amnesty International club and organizing annual domestic violence awareness weeks. As an undergraduate at Cambridge University, she coached her fellow classmates on the signs of partner abuse. When it came time for her to apply to Berkeley Law, she spent three sleepless nights pouring over her personal statement, then, in a flash of inspiration, churned out an impassioned poem, with the lines: “Woman is born free and nowhere must be in chains.”

Now, half a decade later, Passi works full time on FreeFrom from her Venice home-turned-office. She and her tiny legal team help women in New York and California file lawsuits against their abusers, arguing for financial compensation for lost wages, medical expenses and relocation costs. Beginning this winter, she’ll also travel up and down the Pacific Coast, mentoring survivors on how to launch their own businesses and freelance careers so they never have to look to a partner for money again.

In her Los Angeles program, which launched this January, Passi coaches 15 women on the ins and outs of entrepreneurship — things like accounting, sales and marketing, customer acquisition, social media, branding,and even building confidence.

In just the first three months, the women under her wing are already immersed in their new projects.

One survivor created her own beauty venture, buying name-brand makeup products wholesale, then selling them door to door. She’s sold lipsticks at the bus stop and eyeshadow palettes at the doctor’s office, never wasting an opportunity to acquire a new customer.

Another survivor — a former personal trainer –is starting her own morning yoga, meditation and aerobics classes for fellow residents at her transitional housing unit, charging $5 a week.

Being your own boss makes logical sense for many survivors; those hiding from their abusers can feel vulnerable about networking on LinkedIn or being featured on a company’s staff website.
It also provides a loophole from having to face employers that may see their experience as undesirable.

“If you apply for a job and it comes up in the job interview that you’re a survivor, it doesn’t help you — it harms you,” says Passi. “Conceptually, it makes no sense. How can you be weak if you’ve survived all of this?”

Passi says that in building their own businesses and becoming financially independent, survivors are empowered to do exactly what their abusers told them they could not: stand on their own two feet.

“The message of the abuse is: ‘You are nothing without me,'” Passi says. “Our message is: ‘You are everything you will ever need.'”

For more information or to contact FreeFrom, visit freefrom.org

Insurance is most-searched financial product in Singapore, Google reveals

The findings also showed that Singaporeans are savvy about their finances and keenly aware of movements in the financial sectors, Google noted. — File pic SINGAPORE, April 11 — Eight out of the top 10 financial searches in Singapore over the last year were about insurance policies ranging from health and business to housing and cars, revealed Google yesterday.

Yesterday also saw the search engine launch its Asia-Pacific (Apac) financial dashboard, sharing details on how consumers in 10 areas across the region — Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, India, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam — conducted searches for financial products over the last year.

Some of the top financial Google searches in Singapore include: How to make car insurance cheaper”, “Why life insurance is important for future success” as well as “How to avoid pitfalls in getting home equity loans”. The tool takes into account all the different languages.

“The topic of insurance is very heavy in Singapore,” said Michael Yue, industry head for banking and financial services, Google Singapore.

“Financial literacy in Singapore is one of the highest in Asia and consumers like to be well-informed before making any decisions. Singaporeans care about financial planning and often turn to (Google) Search to help them understand financial products and investments.”

With smartphone penetration rate at 91 per cent, Singaporeans have easy access to the Internet and have made it a one-stop platform to gather information and plan their finances, noted Google. Mobile search growth for financial products is increasing by 28 per cent year-on-year, it added.

For example, using the mobile to send a search related to “investing” in Singapore drew an approximate query volume of 70 million for last year, compared to Hong Kong’s 40 million query volume, information from the APAC financial dashboard showed. Meanwhile a search related to “general banking” on Google doubled in mobile search volume for Singapore at 40 million, compared to Hong Kong’s 20 million.

Yue noted that many organisations have been making “incredible shifts” to digital services in recent years. “They understand that’s where the users are really spending their time. So when you look across all the major local banks, DBS, OCBC, UOB, they are investing quite heavily in digital channels,” he said.

“I think it helps with their business (and) automisation as well because a digital channel can assist in either signing up new products or assisting (support) into the branches.”

Among the other findings, Google also revealed that the search demand for financial products continues to climb up 11 per cent year-on-year, led by key market factors.

Google noticed a peak in searches following topical issues in May to June last year, such as an interest in the Euro following the Brexit announcement, the launch of Digibank by DBS Bank, and the launch of new retail bonds by Oxley and Hyflux.

The findings also showed that Singaporeans are savvy about their finances and keenly aware of movements in the financial sectors, Google noted. Two in three conduct their searches with a brand in mind when searching for financial products.

“Seventy per cent of Singaporeans turn to their smartphones when they need information about a local business compared to 43 per cent in the United States,” noted Yue.

Using insights from Google’s Apac financial dashboard, financial brands can respond better to their consumers and engage them in more relevant ways, both online and offline, he said. – TODAY

Navient Lawsuit Challenges Student Loan Bankruptcy Laws

Student loan servicing giant Navient is currently facing a class-action lawsuitfrom its borrowers.

Due to mounting pressure from plaintiffs and legislators, the lender recently agreed to cease some of its aggressive collection tactics on the debt of a portion of borrowers who filed for bankruptcy. This provides temporary relief for potentially thousands of Navient borrowers.

What’s more, it could signal a way for borrowers to discharge some student debt in bankruptcy. Here’s how new Navient lawsuit developments could change how bankruptcy and student loans work.

Navient lawsuit developments

In the lawsuit, plaintiffs claim that Navient attempted to collect on loans that had been discharged in bankruptcy. They say the company hounded borrowers, even calling their employers and relatives.

In response, Navient voluntarily agreed to halt collection activities for those who have defaulted on their student loans. The company will likely continue to send bill statements but will stop making daily phone calls to borrowers, their families, and their workplaces. The halt will last at least through the end of the lawsuit court proceedings.

This development is the latest in a string of problems Navient is presently facing. In January, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also filed a lawsuit against Navient. Additionally, Attorney Generals in Illinois and Washington both made claims that Navient engaged in predatory lending practices.

Can you file bankruptcy on student loans?

In the 1970s, Congress made changes to the bankruptcy process, making it much more difficult to discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy.

In fact, if a debt falls into the falling categories then it is not eligible to be discharged in bankruptcy:

  • Federal student loans
  • School-offered student loans
  • Qualified education loans from private lenders

Currently, the only way to discharge student loans in bankruptcy is to claim undue hardship.

Undue hardship exists if you cannot afford your loans today and if there is no reason to believe you would be able to in the future. Bankruptcy judges consider your income, as well as your hypothetical earning potential when deciding whether undue hardship exists.

Navient and bankruptcy laws

Lawyers and legislators are now in the midst of challenging student loan bankruptcy laws.

In the past, lawyers have focused on the undue hardship portion of the law concerning student loans. Now they’re focusing on the categories a student loan debt could potentially fall under in order to be eligible for bankruptcy.

For example, student loans that Navient borrowers use for the following are currently not listed as ineligible for discharge under bankruptcy:

  • Non-accredited programs
  • K-12 education
  • Medical school overseas are not part of the categories listed above.

However, Navient collected on them anyway.

Essentially, the plaintiff attorneys in the Navient lawsuit say the company collected on debts that do not fall into the typically ineligible categories of loans. And since they do not fit into these categories, the plaintiff attorneys contend that the loans are eligible for bankruptcy.

By challenging the type of student loans eligible for bankruptcy, it could bring relief to thousands of borrowers.

That’s why this Navient lawsuit could be a groundbreaking change for the student loan industry.If successful, attorneys say the lawsuit would impact approximately 16,000Navient borrowers.

Think twice before declaring bankruptcy

However, bankruptcy is not a ticket to financial freedom. It’s a serious option that should only be a last resort.

Filing for bankruptcy is also a tedious and expensive process. Consumers need to come up with $1,500on average to cover lawyer fees and the court paperwork.

And depending on what kind of bankruptcy you declare, you could damage your credit score for up to 10 years. That can make it extremely difficult to get any form of new credit; if you are approved, it will likely be at the highest interest rate possible.

Bankruptcy does not eliminate all forms of debt, either. Fines or penalties you owe to the government cannot be discharged in most circumstances. And if you owe child support or alimony, you’ll still owe those costs after bankruptcy.

Essentially, bankruptcy is only a good option when there’s no other choice.If your debt has grown to the point that there is no way to get it back under control, bankruptcy might be the answer.

While bankruptcy can be a relief for some borrowers who have experienced significant hardship, it’s not for everyone. Exhaust all of your other options before pursuing this route.

For more information about the Navient lawsuit, check out this article on four ways Navient borrowers can protect themselves.

Interested in refinancing student loans?
Here are the top 6 lenders of 2017!