Johnny Carson once joked that the difference between a divorce and a separation is that a separation gives the husband enough time to hide his money.
But in today’s rough economy, finding hidden assets in a divorce is no joke. Heather Mills accused former hubby Paul McCartney of hiding assets during their high profile divorce, and Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea and his wife, Linda Bollea, have accused each other of the same thing. But this issue goes way beyond celebrity divorces.
When family finances wear thin, divorcing couples treat nickels like manhole covers, and the temptation to hide assets from an estranged or divorced spouse is growing.
According to a recent study by the U.K. accounting firm Grant Thornton, one in five divorcing couples had at least one member trying to conceal assets or income from the spouse. Mostly (that is, 88% of the time) it's men hiding income from their wives, according to the firm.
But no matter which side is squirreling money away, finding hidden assets in a divorce should be a priority for spouses. Fortunately, many of the secrets that secretive spouses use are coming to light.
Here are some tips:
1. Hunt for red flags. If you sense some monkey business going on with the family finances, take quick steps and get the facts. Specifically:
- Get copies of your old tax returns from the IRS from the last three to five years. Ask for Form 4506. It might take up to 60 days, but you’ll get your old tax records back and can bring them to a local accountant or financial advisor for a breakdown of what assets you’re holding, and what assets your spouse may be holding. Expect to pay about $20 or so for each year’s tax form.
- Get copies of old bank statements, credit card statements and investment account statements. You might have to pay a fee, especially for the bank statements, but you can check to see if any withdrawals occurred from any of the bank and investment accounts, and see if any credit card withdrawals or canceled checks were used to pay an unfamiliar financial advisor or tax accountant. It’s hard to hide money and people usually have to hire a professional to do the job right.
2. Check your spouse’s ATM habits. Financially, people are creatures of habit. But when they are trying to hide cash, or pay off people to help them hide cash, you start to see some irregularities in their ATM withdrawal records. Contact your bank and check to see a record of any ATM withdrawals. Look for withdrawals made away from your local bank or community. Also, make sure your spouse hasn’t changed any joint accounts to individual accounts. The same goes for investment accounts.
3. Check your credit report. Get a free copy of your credit report and check for any unfamiliar or irregular financial activity.
4. Look for deferred salary payments, performance bonuses, or commissions. Divorcing spouses may push the “mute” button when it comes to revealing deferred salary, extra bonus money, or higher commissions they earn on the job. Check with your spouse’s company, through its human resources department, and ask for all payment records. As long as you’re still married, you have the right to get information on spousal income.
5. Watch out for these tricks. One underhanded way spouses can hide assets is to open a custodial account in their child’s name. Deposits and withdrawals can easily be made without an unsuspecting spouse knowing. Another trick: Spouses can over-withhold tax on purpose. Why? Because overpayments on taxes now triggers tax reimbursements later, usually after the divorce is finalized.
If you have a strong suspicion that your spouse is holding out on you, bring in a professional financial investigator or matrimonial lawyer to crack the case. Look for a good, qualified attorney.
Nobody likes a cash-hiding spouse, especially divorce court judges. Take the steps above to insure that when the time comes to cut the marital knot, you get the money you deserve.
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