By: Jeff Landers
While my post about hidden assets was racking up thousands of readers, news broke that a Russian billionaire allegedly bought an $88 million apartment as a ploy to scam his wife during their divorce.
To me, these related –albeit completely independent –events are evidence of two key points: 1) The topic of husbands hiding assets hits a nerve with many women, and 2) Husbands hide assets (or at least, try to hide assets) much more frequently than most wives expect.
So, let’s keep this conversation going.
Today, I’d like to dig a little deeper into the topic of hidden assets, and to do so, I’ve enlisted the help of my colleague, Miles Mason, Sr., JD, CPA, founder of Miles Mason Family Law Group, PLC, in Memphis, Tennessee, and author of The Forensic Accounting Deskbook: A Practical Guide to Financial Investigation and Analysis for Family Lawyers, published by the American Bar Association.
“Fraud victims are often too embarrassed to report the crime,” Miles explains. ”Spouses married to persons lying, cheating and stealing in the divorce become demoralized. The spouse counts on the victim’s will breaking down. Victims blame themselves and want to settle for less than a reasonable settlement.”
If you’re divorcing, please don’t let that happen to you. Educate yourself and lean on the expertise of a qualified divorce team to help you get the settlement you deserve. To help you wrap your arms around this complicated topic, here are a few of “the basics” Miles teaches his clients:
Red flags seem obvious, once you know what to look for. You may have good reason to be suspicious if your husband:
• Maintains complete control of bank account information and online passwords.
• Is secretive about financial affairs.
• Owns a P.O. box or private mail drop box, which receives account statements and bills.
• Has meaningful unreimbursed business account expenses.
• Deletes one or more personal financial programs, Quicken or Quickbooks.
• Says the computer containing important financial records has mysteriously “crashed.” Then, he removes the hard drive for a data retrieval attempt, and it’s never to be seen again.
• Acts pushy when obtaining signatures on important documents, like tax returns and deeds. “I need to get this to our accountant today,” he insists.
• Proposes an execution of mutual durable power of attorneys for “estate planning” purposes.
• Enjoys out-of-town business junkets with his befriended, slippery financial advisor.
• Develops SIDS (Sudden Income Deficit Syndrome). “My business is failing” suddenly crops up.
• Suffers an income decrease without a corresponding reduction of expenses.
• Binges on unusual purchases of flashy items, such as a car and jewelry.
• Reports a dramatic decrease in value of marital and/or business investments.
• Owns multiple cell phones or numbers over a relatively short period of time.
• Makes frequent trips to countries with relaxed banking laws.
• Exhibits childish greed and claims of entitlement.
• Makes unusual purchases of toys or art that could be sold later.
• Starts drawing on large amounts of debt.
• Is involved in drug abuse.
• Gambles more frequently than usual and is placing money “on account” with casinos.
• Opens multiple business or personal bank accounts without obvious reasons for having that many.
A husband who hides assets usually has very specific, predictable objectives. In general terms, his goals are to:
1. Hide, understate, or undervalue certain assets,
2. Overstate debts,
3. Report lower than actual revenue, and/or
4. Report higher than actual expenses.
Most tactics are predictable, too. Here are a few of the most predictable strategies Miles has seen, along with the advantages and disadvantages for each:
• Hoarding unrecorded cash. Advantage: Removing cash (currency) lacks a paper trail, and offshore bank accounts are relatively easy (from a legal standpoint) to open. Disadvantage: Laundering over $100,000 in currency can be time-consuming and will likely require travel. Depending on the circumstances, this tactic could involve the very serious criminal acts of money laundering, violation of cash transfer reporting requirements, federal income tax fraud and perjury.
• Secreting already recorded cash receipts. Advantage: This can be completed as part of a complex accounting scheme, which may be too complicated or expensive to discover. Disadvantage: Once cash is recorded, its absence or transfer is discoverable.
• Understating revenue. Advantage: The business owner has lots of options from which to choose. Some are simple and easy. Deferring revenue by manipulating the timing of revenue or accounts receivable may not constitute tax fraud. Disadvantage: Depending on the business owner’s sophistication, this can require a fairly predictable co-conspirator. If the co-conspirator is placed under oath, the scheme could result in perjury charges for the husband.
Scams to hide money often involve handing cash or transferring ownership of valuable assets to buddies, siblings, or parents to hold until sometime after the divorce is final. These schemes usually include deceptive cover stories, financial statement manipulation and lying under oath. Sometimes the stories even become more intricate, involving failing businesses, gambling addictions and other personal failures.
“The more believable the story is that the money is gone, the more likely the victim will give up looking for it,” Miles says.
Let’s consider an example. Pretend your husband’s business owns a vacant building. Your husband may complain that the property taxes are long overdue and the building is worth less than the cost of paying them. Then, prior to the divorce filing, he brags that the business sold the building to a stupid investor who is now “stuck” with having to pay the overdue taxes. At first this may sound like a great deal: the business is rid of the purported albatross, and the business and marital estate is purportedly saved thousands of dollars. But, the reality is quite different. The taxes were never behind, and the purchaser was your husband’s nefarious financial advisor and personal friend. The transfer was recorded, but the handshake deal will result in your husband and his friend splitting the profits from its sale a year or so after the divorce.
As I pointed out, timing is critical to detect schemes using financial statement manipulation, and benchmarks are key. Ideally, a woman must be financially aware and involved from the onset of her marriage. Consistent participation from the start is critically important because: 1) If your husband has been hiding income/assets over years or decades, it will become virtually impossible to trace/find them, and 2) Being financially aware and involved helps form the foundation of happy marriages where a divorce is not even a possibility. (If your husband becomes incapacitated or dies, a working knowledge of your assets/liabilities and income/expenses and where all your accounts and important documents are located will be vitally important.)
Remember, your husband doesn’t have to be a billionaire to be guilty of hiding assets. Dirty tricks happen more often than women expect, and you’ll need to Think Financially, Not Emotionally® so you can keep your finances intact during the divorce proceedings while you plan for a secure financial future post-divorce, as well.