Finding Hidden Assets 101

One component of the divorce process is equitable distribution or division of marital property. Before you can work out an equitable distribution of the property though, you have to know how much marital property there is, where it is and how much it is worth.

In some cases, this can pose a challenge, a time-consuming and expensive challenge. The difficulty is often compounded in many cases by a controlling spouse who kept the other spouse in the dark throughout the marriage or even went out of their way to mislead the other spouse about their financial affairs long before the word divorce first came up.

The problem in these cases is that once people embark on hiding (or collude to hide) assets, they have an ever-strengthening, self-preservation motive to cover up not only the assets but also their own misconduct in hiding them. That means you will almost certainly need a forensic accountant.

So for the innocent spouse the dilemma becomes: is there enough money hidden to justify the expense of the hunt to root it out?

The article below provides some tips about some of the more common asset-hiding tactics.

Searching for Hidden Assets in a New York Divorce

In New York as in any state, your spouse may attempt to hide assets from you at the time of divorce. Here are some tips on how to find property your spouse may be concealing from you when you divorce.

This list includes common ways in which a spouse may undervalue or disguise marital assets. Be advised, however, that you may have difficulty finding some items or getting the proof you need to show they exist. A forensic accountant or formal discovery procedure may help.

  • Collusion with an employer to delay bonuses, stock options or raises until after the divorce. You might find this information by taking the deposition of your spouse’s boss or payroll supervisor, but more likely you’ll need a forensic accountant.
  • Salary paid to a nonexistent employee. The checks will be voided after divorce. Again, you might find this information by taking the deposition of your spouse’s boss or payroll supervisor, but you’ll probably need a forensic accountant.
  • Money paid from the business to someone close — such as a father, mother, girlfriend or boyfriend — for services never rendered. The money will no doubt be given back to your spouse after the divorce is final.
  • A custodial account set up in the name of a child, using the child’s Social Security number.
  • Delay in signing long-term business contracts until after the divorce. Although this may seem like smart planning, if the intent is to lower the value of the business, it is considered hiding assets.
  • Skimming cash from a business he or she owns.
  • Antiques, artwork, hobby equipment, gun collections and tools that are overlooked or undervalued. Look for lush furnishings, paintings or collector-level carpets at the office; income that is unreported on tax returns and financial statements.
  • Debt repayment to a friend for a phony debt.
  • Expenses paid for a girlfriend or boyfriend such as gifts, travel, rent or tuition for college or special classes.
  • Investment in certificate “bearer” municipal bonds or Series EE Savings Bonds, which do not appear on account statements because they are not registered with the IRS. (The government is phasing out these bonds, realizing that it is losing a lot of money.)
  • Cash kept in the form of traveler’s checks. You may be able to find these by tracing bank account deposits and withdrawals.

Get the Goods (on Paper) Before It Ends

If you suspect that your spouse may attempt to hide assets, it’s best to start investigating your household and business finances before initiating divorce proceedings. Make copies of important documents such as tax returns from the past several years, bank account statements, pay stubs and any other documents that reflect joint assets or debts. Keep copies of these documents outside the home if you’re still living with your spouse or partner. Also, as a precautionary measure, you might want to open a separate savings account in your name only. If your spouse hides assets, you may find yourself in need of a nest egg. Down the line, you may have to relinquish some of your savings to your spouse — after all, we’re not encouraging you to deal with a dishonest spouse by stooping to his or her level — but having a little extra cash on hand may ward off a crisis in the wake of your divorce.

For educational purposes only and not intended to infringe on ©2004, 2005 Richard Granat