There have been a number of recent high profile cases where an ex-partner in a divorce has hidden money or assets to avoid them being included in the joint assets that will be divided by the court or an arbitrator.
Among these was an Australian couple’s dispute about the whereabouts of $160,000 fortune hidden in a shoebox.
It is surprisingly common for people to attempt to do this and I have worked on many cases where it has happened – including when a client’s ex squirreled away stacks of £10 notes. In fact, almost every family dispute I have handled has involved an alleged non-disclosure.
Reasons for hiding or undervaluing assets include a wish to save money, a desire for revenge or a belief that the asset or the person’s wealth is too trivial for scrutiny.
However, before the court can reach a financial settlement on separation, both parties have a legal obligation to provide full and frank disclosure of all their assets (including pensions), income and liabilities. Unless and until this has been done, a financial order cannot be made, even if both parties are happy for it to go ahead.
The court does not take into account who is ‘at fault’, meaning that the ‘wronged’ party has no excuse for not making an honest declaration. Nor is it justified for the poorer partner to fail to disclose. That person may feel aggrieved at having to list a tiny savings account or income from a part time job, when the other person is far better off – but the court’s intention is to assess a couple’s joint worth and how this can be divided fairly to meet the reasonable needs of both parties.
Declaring everything that you own does not mean you will receive a reduced settlement – however, failing to disclose an asset can produce that result.
If one party fails to fully disclose, it can lead to a more extended, costly dispute. The person who has not disclosed can in extreme cases be ordered to pay the other side’s legal costs and it is usually the case that that person will receive a far less favourable settlement – with more allocated to their ex on top of what would have been awarded in the first place.
There is nearly also extra expense in relation to applications for court orders for further disclosure or the hiring of a forensic accountant to track down hidden funds, the cost of which is sometimes ordered to be paid by the “non-disclosing” party.
In any event, legal costs always are paid out of the pooled assets that the court would prefer to be spent on the households of the separating couple and their children. One partner’s dishonest disclosure can severely reduce the funds available to do this, which could diminish everybody’s standard of living and affect a parent’s long term relationship with their offspring.
There are often no winners from somebody’s refusal to fully declare, but there can be many losers. Honesty is always the best policy – no matter what misgivings or lingering bitterness one party has for their ex.
hlw Keeble Hawson partner, Vanessa Fox, marked 25 years as head of the firm’s family law department in 2016.
Collaboratively trained and a qualified mediator, she has modernised South Yorkshire Resolution since becoming chair in 2013 and is also a member of the Law Society’s Family Law Panel and the Children Panel.
She can be contacted on 0114 290 6232 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.