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At the end of the day, divorce is mostly about the division of assets and liabilities.
That is not to say that there are not other, equally difficult issues to confront during divorce. Child custody and support, for one, is often an arduous and grueling experience. So are the negotiations for the amount and duration of alimony. But, dividing assets and liabilities during a divorce tends to bring out the absolute worst in people.
One dirty trick that is sometimes employed by people during divorce is hiding assets and/or income. This can be extremely easy to do when one spouse, typically the man, handles the finances and the other spouse, typically the woman, is unaware, uninvolved, uninformed and perhaps even uninterested in the details of the family finances. In our practice, we deal exclusively with women and we’ve found this to be true in many cases. It has nothing to do with her intelligence or education — most of our clients are lawyers, doctors, MBAs, business owners, executives and other professionals.
The rationale for hiding assets and income can be anything from revenge for an infidelity, fear of not having enough money after the divorce, the desire to lower the value of a business or just good old-fashioned greed. Typically, the person hiding assets feel that they “earned” it and therefore shouldn’t have to give any of it up. But regardless of the reason, hiding assets, income and debt is unethical, immoral, illegal and subject to severe penalties when discovered.
If you suspect that your soon-to-be ex-husband might be hiding assets, income and/or adding debt (real or fictitious) in order to lower or avoid paying child support and/or alimony payments, you should immediately become vigilant to protect what you might be rightfully entitled to.
Below are several tips for identifying whether your spouse may be hiding assets and/or income.
The take-away here is to make sure from the very beginning of your marriage that you are involved with and have full knowledge of all marital assets, liabilities, income and expenses. Know where all copies of tax returns and other financial records are located (many of these statements can now be uploaded on the internet for future use). If it’s now too late for preventive measures and you’re already in the throes of divorce, you may want to strategize your next financial steps with a divorce financial expert.
Gather as much information as you can, as soon as you can, and play detective
Immediately start to gather documents such as tax returns (including any business returns); bank and brokerage statements; pension, IRA and 401K statements; as well as credit card statements and other loan statements. If you notice that bank and other financial statements are no longer coming to the home, it could be a sign that marital assets are being diverted or dissipated. I created a free Divorce Financial Checklist to assist you with this task.
Once you have gathered all of the documents, you can start playing detective by looking at past years’ tax returns. It’s a good bet that your husband is typical and somewhat fearful of the IRS and is unlikely to be dishonest on them. This should give you a good snapshot of your income for the past several years. Additionally, you should also carefully go through your brokerage statements to see if there have been any purchases or sale of securities. If you find that securities have been sold, you should be able to track the proceeds back to another account.
You can also easily go through past checking account statements for the last few years looking for purchases that you didn’t know happened. Savings accounts could reveal deposits that might mean your husband could have an income producing asset that you didn’t know about. Sometimes people will open bank accounts in their children’s names with the intent of hiding cash. The interest on these accounts would not necessarily show up on tax returns because they might not have been filed for the children.
Watch for sudden decreases in salary
It is often possible to work with employers to defer salary and hold commissions and bonuses for future distribution. The idea is that this money won’t be “on the books” until after the divorce is final. If you suspect this is happening, review previous years’ earnings reports and tax records to identify dramatic decreases in income.
Watch for intentional overpayments
Believe it or not, some people intentionally overpay the IRS (and other creditors) to hide funds. They do this knowing that the overpayment will result in a refund that they will receive later – presumably after the divorce is final. I’ve also known cases where people fabricate loans from family members. The idea here is that they can lower their bottom line by listing these debts in their financial statements or sending the family member cash to “pay the loans” knowing that the family member will return the funds after the divorce. You should also watch for money that might be transferred to your children’s (or his children’s) name.
Make sure he isn’t hiding assets in his business
If your husband owns a business make sure he is not “cooking the books” with methods like paying employees who don’t exist, or friends and family who agree to hold the checks until after the divorce is final. He also might delay signing on new clients until after the divorce. The ultimate goal here is to devalue the business. The less it’s worth, the less you’ll get.
Pay attention if your husband suddenly becomes secretive or defensive in regard to money
If your husband is suddenly defensive about money, or demands to control the family funds, it could be that he is diverting or dissipating joint assets. If you suspect this is happening you may need to work with a forensic accountant who will uncover any unscrupulous activity.
Looking for hidden assets is frustrating, difficult, complex, and can be very expensive if you need to engage a forensic accountant. Unfortunately many husbands are successful in hiding and/or devaluing their assets and income when going through a divorce. The burden of proof is often on the cash-poor spouse (typically the woman) to prove any such hiding and more often than not, she cannot afford it and just gives up. This can lead to her getting a very unfair settlement.
Jeffrey A. Landers, CDFA™ is a Divorce Financial Strategist™ and the founder of Bedrock Divorce Advisors, LLC (http://www.BedrockDivorce.com), a divorce financial strategy firm that exclusively works with women, who are going through, or might be going through, a financially complicated divorce. He also advises women business owners on what steps they can take now to “divorce-proof” their business in the event of a future divorce. He can be reached at Landers@BedrockDivorce.com.
All articles/blog posts are for informational purposes only, and do not constitute legal advice. If you require legal advice, retain a lawyer licensed in your jurisdiction. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author, who is not an attorney.
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