We’ve all experienced the stress that tax filing season can bring, but for survivors of domestic violence it can be a particularly challenging and even dangerous time. In my work at the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, I’ve witnessed the barriers that survivors face when trying to file taxes with an abuser and the ways that financial insecurity can make it almost impossible to find safety and stability.

This is part of the reason that our work includes advocating for direct cash assistance programs, and one of the key programs we have advocated for finally launched this year. The Working Families Tax Credit is a new tax refund in Washington state of up to $1,200, depending on income and how many kids you can claim. Already, over 170,000 households have applied for an average refund of $738. And now, thanks to a new law that we advocated for along with partners in our coalition, people who are married and filing separately will also be able to claim this credit, making it much easier for survivors to access this cash. 

Financial abuse is one of the ways that abusers make it difficult for survivors to leave their relationships and continue to try to control their lives even after they do manage to leave. Survivors are often left with little to no financial cushion to begin their journey toward safety and to care for their children. The challenges involved with finalizing a divorce and the need to file jointly with an abuser prolong financial abuse as well.

Whether it’s refusing to provide W2s, claiming tax credits that their partner is entitled to, controlling or withholding tax refunds, or using continued contact as a means to continue abuse, survivors of domestic violence often miss out on refunds because of the ways their abusers control the filing process.

Many survivors choose to file their taxes “married filing separately” because of these barriers. However, our federal tax code makes it difficult or impossible for them to access some of the more common tax credits using this filing status.

People who are married and filing separately can’t claim the Earned Income Tax Credit, a boost of thousands of dollars for people with lower incomes that is one of our nation’s most effective anti-poverty programs, and they can only get half of the Child Tax Credit. This puts survivors between a rock and hard place – risk their safety to negotiate with their abuser to file their taxes, or miss out on life-saving cash that could help them pay back rent, buy groceries, or afford car repairs.

All of these discriminatory exclusions make this expansion of eligibility for our state tax credit extra helpful for survivors. We’re also excited that this bill extends the time people have to claim their credit to three years rather than one, meaning that if you need to file back taxes, you’ll get every penny of the credit for the years you were entitled to it.

Direct cash supports such as the Working Families Tax Credit can serve as the financial boost that survivors need for a new path towards safety and stability for themselves and their families, and I encourage everyone to check your eligibility this year and apply. There’s still an estimated 230,000+ households who are eligible but haven’t yet claimed their cash. 

To apply, you’ll need to file your federal taxes, and then fill out a separate state application, which you can do at www.WorkingFamiliesCredit.Wa.Gov. If you missed the filing deadline, there is no penalty to file late if you are owed a refund. And, if you’re lower income and worried you’ll owe penalties for filing late, there is free assistance available. United Way of King County will have free tax preparation services open until at least July this year, and they can help you with your Working Families Tax Credit application, too. Call 211 in your county for more free options, or check out the resource list at www.WaTaxCredit.org

There’s a lot to celebrate this year in Washington state. We want to make sure everyone takes advantage of this cash boost –don’t leave your refund on the table.

Em Stone is the public policy director at the Washington State Coalition against Domestic Violence, the leading voice to end domestic violence in Washington state.