Searching for Hidden Assets at Divorce

How to find property your spouse is concealing when you divorce.

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Common ways in which a spouse may undervalue or disguise marital assets include:

  • Antiques, artwork, hobby equipment, gun collections, and tools that are overlooked or undervalued. Look for antique furnishings, original paintings, or collector-level carpets at your spouse's office.
  • Income that is unreported on tax returns and financial statements.
  • Cash kept in the form of 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, realizing that it is losing a lot of money.)
  • collusion with an employer to delay bonuses, stock options, or raises until a time when the asset or income would be considered separate property.
  • 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 classes.
  • Retirement accounts that your spouse never tells you about.

In addition, business owners may try to hide assets in these 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).
  • A 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.

You may have difficulty finding these items or getting the proof you need to show they exist. Formal discovery procedures through litigation may help. For instance, you could take the deposition (legal interview) of your spouse's boss or payroll supervisor. But you may also need to hire a forensic accountant or a private investigator. (A forensic accountant is an accountant who is trained to look into accounting practices in order to gather evidence that can be used in court.) Usually an attorney can refer you to these specialists.

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