Divorce often brings out the worst in couples. It’s no secret that ending a relationship, much less a committed marriage, is complicated, emotional, and at times, frustrating. Add to the mix of emotions the fact that you’ll need to categorize and split your property and debt, decide who will be a better caretaker for your children, and whether either spouse will financially support the other after the divorce, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Even the most well-intentioned couples sling mud and feed into the turmoil that comes with divorce, but when you or your spouse starts bending the truth or embellishing the facts to make themselves look better to the judge, you could face serious consequences.
If you’ve ever watched a courtroom television show, you’ve likely seen the witness step up onto the witness stand, raise a hand, and swear or affirm to tell the truth. In any legal process, the moment you agree to tell the truth, the court considers you under oath, and if you lie, you may face serious consequences.
It’s important to understand that being “under oath” isn’t limited to live testimony in a courtroom. When you file for divorce, nearly every document that you submit has a “penalty of perjury” statement at the end. For example, in Michigan, when you sign your divorce petition before submitting it to the court, you agree that all the statements in the document are true to the “best of your knowledge and belief.” Once you sign your divorce petition, or any other financial or case-related documents, you’ve taken an oath to tell the truth.
“You don’t have to have a good memory if you tell the truth” is a simple, yet powerful, statement. If you tell your side of the story during your divorce trial and you do so with integrity and honesty, you don’t have to worry. However, it’s easy to fall into the trap of embellishing or misrepresenting the truth to get an advantage in your divorce. But, lying spouses often stand to lose more than they would gain if the lie were true. If you believe your spouse lied under oath, you’ll need to prove it before you can take any other action.
If your spouse lies during your divorce trial or in your case-related documents, and you can prove it, you can move forward in a few ways. First, you or your attorney can confront your spouse (or your spouse’s attorney) to let them know you can disprove the statement with evidence. If you would like to keep your divorce case civil, you can ask your spouse to correct the lie and continue with your divorce without informing the court. However, if your spouse refuses to disclose the error, you may need to notify the judge, which could result in severe consequences for your spouse.
Lying under oath, or, perjury, is a federal crime. Although the civil court has limited power to punish your spouse for perjury, the judge can forward the case to the prosecutor for criminal enforcement. Punishment for committing perjury could result in probation, fines, or a prison sentence up to 5 years. If your spouse’s deceit doesn’t warrant a criminal investigation, the judge in your divorce case could still find your spouse in contempt of court, which could result in fines or time in jail.
Although this may be your first experience with civil court, most judges have seen it all. So, if you suspect that your spouse is hiding assets, making false accusations, or misrepresenting your marital history, chances are that the judge will be able to pick up on the deception.
For example, some spouses will trade a higher paying job for minimum wage employment to avoid paying more child or spousal support. Although job-switching spouses try to outsmart the court by saying they were “laid off” or “didn’t have control over the job change,” most judges are perceptive enough to see the coincidence between a new position and a divorce filing. As a result, the judge will create the support award using your spouse’s previous income, rather than the new, lower income.
If you suspect your spouse is hiding or misrepresenting assets, hiring an attorney may be the best way to ensure that you get your share of the marital estate. Attorneys have a variety of tools to locate hidden or missing assets, like the right to subpoena records, participation in depositions, and requests for production of documents from your spouse.
It’s also important to understand that as a party to the divorce, your credibility could make or break your case. If the court discovers or believes that you are dishonest in your testimony or court-related documents, the judge’s impression of you may be enough to influence the result. After all, if you lie about how much money you have in a separate bank account, what else isn’t true?
If you learn about your spouse’s deception after the judge finalizes your divorce, you might be able to reopen your settlement agreement, but it’s going to be an uphill battle. If you can provide the court with concrete, actual evidence of the intentional misrepresentation, the judge may allow you to change your agreement.
Most judgments of divorce contain a provision that will enable either spouse to request the court to reopen the divorce if a spouse later discovers that the other deliberately lied or falsified court documents. In some judgments, deceitful spouses will lose their entire share of the marital estate if the court determines that the lies were intentional.
If you’re going through a divorce and are concerned that your spouse is hiding assets or misrepresenting the facts to get a more favorable divorce judgment, consider hiring an experienced family law attorney to represent you.