I recently read an article about a divorcing man who converted his life savings into gold and then threw it away in the trash, just so that his wife couldn’t get it. Or, I should say, he “allegedly” threw it away. He says he threw it away … but no one saw him throw it away and he has no proof that the gold is really gone. Having been a divorce attorney for almost twenty years I have to say … I’m skeptical. But the incident raises an issue many divorcing people face: what do you do if your spouse is hiding assets?
Here are five steps you can take if you think your spouse is hiding assets. Before you take any of them, though, read through all five so you can figure out what you really need to do.
Steps to Take if You Think Your Spouse is Hiding Assets
1. Gather as much financial information as you can.
Try to get information from the past three years. The more information you have about your financial situation, the better your chances will be for determining whether your spouse has been siphoning money off during the marriage and hiding it.
You want to collect bank statements, tax returns, retirement and investment account statements. Gather information about job benefits, including copies of employment contracts, deferred compensation statements, and Health Savings Account statements. If your spouse owns his or her own business, you will want to gather the business tax returns and any other business records you can locate. Finally, don’t forget to gather information about debts as well as assets: that includes credit card statements, mortgage statements, and loan documents.
2. Analyze the data.
After you have gathered all of the financial information you can find, you need to organize it, read it, and figure out where you stand. Don’t worry if you are not a financial expert. You are (or you should be) the expert of your own life. You will know, better than anyone else, whether your spouse always carries around lots of cash (in which case, withdrawing hundreds of dollars in cash might be normal for him/her) or whether your spouse always uses debit and credit cards to pay for purchases (in which case, withdrawing hundreds of dollars in cash would definitely not be normal).
Start by grouping the information and putting it in reverse chronological order. Note if you are missing any statements. Make a list of the current value of all of your assets and the current amount of all of your debts. Highlight any large withdrawals of cash or sizeable unknown purchases you find.
3. Follow the breadcrumbs.
Look for things that don’t belong. For example, if money is being transferred from your joint bank account into a different bank account, make note of the bank account numbers. If something gets paid with a credit card you’ve never seen before, make note of that credit card type and number. Make a list of any new account number you find.
4. Hire an expert.
If your name is on an account, whether it is a bank account, credit card account, or other kind of account, you should be able to get information about that account directly from the company which holds the account. If your name is not on an account, however, you are going to either need to get those account statements from your spouse (which may or may not happen) or you will need to have your lawyer issue subpoenas for the information. You may also need to hire a forensic accountant or a private investigator to dig more deeply into the information and determine whether it looks like money has been diverted away from your marital estate or not. This is particularly true if you have a large marital estate or a complicated financial situation.
5. Figure out what this exercise is worth to you.
You can do this at any point in the process outlined above. You can even do it before you start the process. Because here is the truth that most lawyers and financial professionals don’t tell you when you start digging for hidden assets: it costs money. Sometimes, it costs a lot of money. Accountants cost money. Lawyers cost money. Investigators cost money. It also takes time, uses energy, and keeps you from resolving your case until you have the answers you are looking for. And, that’s ok. You may need those answers. But, if your spouse has been a W-2 employee earning substantially the same amount of money during your entire marriage, and the only questionable purchases you find amount to $2,000, it might not make sense to spend $10,000 in expert fees to find out what happened to that $2,000.
Does The Search for Hidden Assets Justify the Cost?
The bottom line is this: hiding money in a divorce is wrong. If you suspect your spouse is hiding assets, that may be an issue you want to explore. But, before you do, you need to figure out whether doing that makes sense in your case. If your spouse turned all of your assets into gold and threw them away, then of course you want to follow up on what happened to that money and hold your spouse accountable. But, if looking for hidden money costs you more than amount of money that was hidden, what have you gained? And, remember, you may spend thousands of dollars looking for something that you never find, or that doesn’t exist. So, before you dive into the haystack looking for the needle, think about what makes sense in your case, and then do what is best for you.