Is My Spouse Really Hiding Money . . . or Does It Just Feel That Way?

Unfortunately, it happens.  Spouses do conceal assets.  Some even spend the entire marital estate on untoward activities and ridiculous whims and weird mid-life crisis expenditures. Some spouses even run up huge debts without telling their husband or wife – especially if these debts are from gambling, drugs, girlfriend-related expenses, etc. It happens, but you should not assume, in every case, that this is what is going on.

Divorce attorneys and forensic accountants are the masters at figuring this out.  Husbands and wives who feel that they are being hoodwinked, when it comes to the family finances, need an attorney who has subpoena powers and the ability to take the equivocator (pretty much means “the liar”!) to court if he/she fails to produce the financial documents as requested.  A litigator’s toolbox and skills are also needed if a spouse repeatedly and inadequately explains why money is “missing”, why debts have mysteriously piled up, why the suggested values of the parties’ businesses and property are so much lower than expected and/or why there are suddenly expensive assets that both appear and disappear. Be careful, however, as this is an area of litigation where the fees can add up fast and, if the money is truly gone, it is just that: “Gone!” There may be other assets to offset the missing money, etc., but if there is not, you may be spending and awful lot of time and money just to prove it. Talk with your attorney, have a goal and consider capping your attorney fees at a certain dollar amount.

Be careful, however, when aligning oneself to the notion that your spouse is being shady with the family estate.  In today’s volatile economy, what may appear to be financial shenanigans may very well just be the manifestation of the sad truth that a spouse’s business is going downhill.  Also, the values of property and business are remarkably difficult to assess these days.  Not only that, but the old adage that “the value of a business or piece of real estate is only what a person would pay for it” has never been truer than in today’s market.

Sometimes, small suspicions of asset concealment and/or debts that seem to have accumulated out of no where, are often simply a manifestation of miscommunications, misunderstandings and a lack of knowledge about the family’s money situation by one of the spouses.  A good mediator can help clients to determine the difference between a case of “hiding the goods” and a case where there is simply a very uneven base of knowledge about the family assets and debts. The former is usually a cause for a referral to the court-based system; the latter is a situation where mediation is often the perfect forum to help both parties get a grip on their financial situation as part of the settlement of their divorce disputes.

The following list includes some common ways in which a spouse may hide, undervalue or disguise marital assets[1].

Disguising Marital Assets as Method of Hiding Assets

  • Antiques, artwork, hobby equipment, gun collections, and tools that are overlooked or undervalued. Look for antique furnishings, original paintings, or collector-level carpets in your spouse’s office.
  • Cash kept in the form of cash/travelers’ checks. You may be able to find these by tracing bank account deposits and withdrawals.
  • A custodial account set up in the name of a child, using the child’s Social Security number.
  • Investment in certificate “bearer” municipal bonds or Series EE Savings Bonds. These do not appear on account statements because they are not registered with the IRS. (The government is phasing out these bonds.)

Not Reporting Receipt of Money on Tax Returns, Delaying Receipt of Marital Money

  • Income that is unreported on tax returns and financial statements.
  • Collusion with an employer to delay bonuses, stock options, or raises until a time when the asset or income would be considered separate property (upon separation in Virginia; upon divorce in Maryland and Virginia)
  • Debt repayment to a friend for a phony debt.

Misappropriation of Marital Money

  • Expenses paid for a girlfriend or boyfriend, such as gifts, travel, rent, or tuition for college or classes.
  • Retirement accounts that your spouse never tells you about.

In addition, business owners may try to hide assets in the following ways:

  • Skimming cash from the business;
  • Salary payments to a nonexistent employee, with checks that will be voided after the divorce;
  • Money paid from the business to someone close — such as a father, mother, girlfriend, or boyfriend — for services that were never actually rendered (the money is given back to your spouse after the divorce is final); or
  • A delay in signing long-term business contracts until after the divorce.

If you are planning on filing for divorce, it would be a good idea to begin getting yourself educated as to the family finances.  If you do not think that there are a lot of games being played with the money, and if you are able to sit down with your spouse, you will want to start informing each other of:

  • the location and values of all assets;
  • your family’s spending patterns;
  • the costs of health insurance for family members;
  • job potentials for each of you (if necessary, post divorce);
  • impending big expenses; and,
  • your family’s debt situation . . .

. . . more power to you. Get to it!

But, if you need the help of a third party to get things moving along, this is a great use of a mediator’s expertise.  Mediators are trained in both helping divorcing couples communicate (without screaming!) and in helping them sort through the family finances and begin planning for their futures as they become financially independent from one another.

Remember, the family CPA, banker, money manager/broker and estate planning attorney has a fiduciary duty (duty of trust) to both of you.  You should feel free to ask that person questions about your taxes, investments, etc.  If you do not want to put up a red flag for strategic reasons (i.e., you do not want your spouse to know that you are preparing for a divorce because he/she might then close down all the accounts and disappear!), get an attorney, first, before you call your financial people.  But always remember this: Sometimes your accountant is just as good a “friend” during your divorce as is your lawyer.

For a free 30 minute consultation in Fairfax, Virginia, call Robin Graine at Graine Mediation: 571-220-1998 or email robin@grainemediation.com.  If you need an attorney or CPA referral, I can help you there, too.


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