To some people, divorce is a declaration of war. To that end, any and all tactics are fair game. But a look at divorce rulings across the nation in recent years — from California, to Illinois, to Florida — indicates that judges are growing increasingly impatient with spouses who intentionally mislead the court, particularly when it concerns hiding their assets. Charlotte Huggins
, a Certified Family Law Specialist who has handled hundreds of divorce cases over an 18-year career in the San Rafael, Calif., is no stranger to spouses hiding assets. She has seen her share of mischievous spouses over the years, including one who lifted $25,000 in gold bars from the family safe, then insisted that she had no idea that the booty was gone, and went on to blame her spouse for the theft. "She would have gotten away with it," Huggins said, "but a family member came forward and told the court that the wife was actually the one who had taken the gold."
In California, as is the case in many other states, the fiduciary responsibility to accurately report your assets is similar to the requirements placed on an officer of a corporation. Unfortunately, as Huggins relates, the wife with the golden touch was fined only $1,000 for her act of perjury. Still, Huggins has noticed that judges seem increasingly impatient with spouses who hide, or lie, about their holdings.
A California appellate court's 2007 ruling in the case of Feldman versus Feldman is a perfect example: Aaron Feldman, a multi-millionaire, was appealing as earlier decision by the Superior Court of San Diego County, which had ruled that he had breached his fiduciary duty to disclose financial information to Elena, his wife of 34 years. It then ordered Feldman to pay sanctions in the amount of $250,000 and $140,000 in additional attorney fees. The California appeals court upheld the decision, concurring with the lower court that Mr. Feldman consistently failed to reveal such assets as a $5.8 million residence, which was purchased for him by a holding company created by his principal business.
As Huggins explains, this was a case where one spouse was playing a shell game: moving assets out of one company and into another, with the intent of hiding them from the court and the other spouse.
While penalties appear to be stiffening, Huggins quickly acknowledges that getting at the truth may take some digging — and that it's not unusual for private investigators to be hired in order to ferret it out. Just the knowledge that someone is out there turning over every lead and scrounging for evidence may be the trump card that pressures the other side to realize the jig is up, and level with the opposing side. This might occur during pre-trial depositions, or simply in correspondence between the attorneys representing both spouses.
And then there are the times when family members inadvertently reveal that they've visited a vacation timeshare with one spouse, which the other spouse knew nothing about. It might seem somewhat implausible to those without similar experiences, but Huggins has witnessed a variety of deceptions involving such significant assets as vacation homes, condominiums, and automobiles that one owned, and the other knew nothing about.
Often the bitterness of divorce drives people to tell a variety of falsehoods about assets, custody issues and more, explains Margaret Bennett of the Bennett Law Firm
in Chicago. "At the start of the process, we sit down with our clients and explain that, while there is an inevitable degree of acrimony involved in most divorce cases, it is in the best interests of both parties to be open and transparent in moving through this process."
For those who choose to not be open with the court, there are a variety of sanctions the court can, and often does, impose. Says Bennett: "This isn't rocket science. Most misrepresentations are relatively easy to discover, through a subpoena of various records."
For Bennett, the bottom line is simple. "If the IRS can't get to it, then we're not going to be able to, either. We can't go after offshore holdings with much luck, but company bonus checks and other such items can be discovered with relative ease."
As to how clients can help in the treasure hunt, Bennett suggests that they do their homework. The more information you can give your attorney — about all financial dealings, from employer bonuses to credit card accounts — the more likely you'll be able to get your fair share of assets.
As for dishonesty related to childcare issues, Bennett believes those are relatively easy to ferret out as well. Again, she insists, "It's about doing your homework. And being prepared to help your attorney to better represent your issues."
What if a new revelation comes to light after the settlement has already been made? If that's the case, in Illinois, for example, you have two years to return to court if, after the divorce settlement, you become aware that a fraud has been committed. In fact, says Bennett, "You have a responsibility to report it to the court, when you have proof that assets were hidden during the proceeding and prior to the settlement."
And like California, Illinois takes a dim view of perjury in divorce proceedings, awarding sanctions and attorneys fees related to such deceptions. Michael Naughton
, an attorney in Jacksonville, Fla., who has more than 25 years experience in representing husbands and wives in divorce proceedings, says that the most common form of perjury he has seen in recent years is a phenomenon he calls "false light," when one spouse attempts to undercut the standing of the other before a judge, with exaggerations about the ex's behavior. Examples of this would be a husband who claims that his wife is a problem drinker, or a wife claiming that her husband is a sexual deviant.
To refute such claims, Naughton has begun calling upon the expert testimony of psychologists. "Alcoholism and other behavioral issues leave a trail of problems. The best way to expose a spouse who is attempting to put the other spouse in a false light is to get an independent professional assessment of the accused spouse's behavior."