Divorce: the emotional rollercoaster

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July 9, 2011

Divorce is an emotional rollercoaster and when people are really hurting, particularly if they have been “swapped” for somebody else, self-preservation becomes all-important. For some, however, this state of mind can lead to an all-consuming desire for vengeance.


After more than 25 years as a divorce attorney, little surprises me. Drawing upon my own experiences over the years, here are examples of the worst kinds of divorce tricks I have encountered. I wish to stress that none of them are recommended – in fact, some are illegal!


10. Hiding money or assets, ready for that “rainy day”.


Many people know that they are going to get divorced long before proceedings are set in motion. Some decide to take pre-emptive action. I recall one case in which a couple ran a small neighbourhood store. After the wife filed for divorce, my firm discovered that the husband had been leading a double life. In addition to that small neighbourhood store, he had an extensive portfolio of properties and owned several supermarkets! The wife had apparently known nothing of this.


Others do what they can to hide their money. Wealthy people do this by shipping it offshore into untraceable bank accounts, owned via a warren of trusts and companies channelled through several countries. Those on more modest incomes do it by depositing funds in the bank accounts of relatives.


The most extreme case I have come across was that of a spouse who had placed almost everything the couple had into an untouchable, offshore trust. He then began to borrow against all the rest of the non-trust assets onshore. Fortunately his wife became wise to his ploy. She was able to obtain an order to freeze his assets worldwide, and put a stop to it.


9. Damage, destruction or sale of the household’s most valuable contents – particularly those that the spouse wishes to keep.


Lady Sarah Graham Moon acquired legendary status among family lawyers after exacting revenge upon her two-timing husband. She cut the arms off 32 of his bespoke suits, poured white paint over his BMW car, raided his wine cellar and left bottles of fine wine on her neighbours’ doorsteps.


Cases I have personally encountered include:


  • A wife who sold the Steinway piano… without the knowledge of her pianist husband.
  • A wife who sawed the legs off a Chippendale cabinet and delivered it – along with its removed legs – to her husband.
  • A wife who ran a bath of scalding water and bleach, in which she dumped all her husbands’ suits and ties.


Some clients claim to have sold assets for remarkably low prices. Miraculously, these same assets reappear in their ownership once the case is over. I have known it to happen with valuable furs, jewellery, art – and even a yacht! Would you be surprised to learn that these assets are often “bought back” once the case is over?


8. Spending money wildly, as a form of “payback”.


Some spurned spouses choose to take revenge in a different way. One client of mine, with an Amex Centurion card, received a credit card bill for $80,000 for jewelry purchased by his wife from Cartier. Her explanation? If he wanted to spend money on his girlfriend he could also spend it on his wife… Take heart if you live in England: the court has the power to add back “wasted monies”.


7. Moving the spouse to a different country, in order to obtain a more favourable divorce settlement.


It may sound far-fetched, but happens more frequently than you might think – especially in countries or states where wives can receive relatively generous settlements.


Who doesn’t dream of a new life in the sun? Or a much better job and quality of life? Sadly, the trusting spouse does not realise that this promised new life is never destined to materialize. Instead, a divorce looms in a country in which he or she does not speak the language, and where financial settlements are far more modest. If children are involved it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to leave that foreign country to return home.


6. Covert surveillance of a spouse by bugging the phone, the car, the office – or by employing an inquiry agent.


When a spouse is suspected of having an affair, all sorts of surveillance techniques can be used. One client told me her husband would wait until he was in the car to discuss his affair with friends, or with the Other Woman herself. The wife placed a recorder under the car seat, and recorded all his telephone calls.


She told me that it was all done on a “need to know” basis. She was desperate for the truth rather than lies, which were making her ill.  Even so, in English law there is no need for dirty tricks to obtain a divorce or a financial settlement.


Instead, such behaviour is likely to leave a British judge wondering about the about the character of someone who would go to these lengths.  When judicial discretion is needed for a financial settlement, this type of conduct can backfire and will almost certainly land the client, rather than the spouse in hot water with the court. So with a client who wants to become a secret agent, my advice is almost invariably, “Don’t.”


5. Making secret copies or downloads.


This is when a spouse secretly photocopies every scrap of financial information in the house and office, or downloads everything from a spouse’s computer. Later, the spouse will pretend that they didn’t realise what they were doing. What often happens is that a piece of computer equipment is purchased with which to download the computer’s hard drive. Or a computer expert is surreptitiously called in.


Different laws apply in different countries but in England, where chancing upon documents belonging to the other spouse and making copies used to be tolerated by the courts, such behaviour is now all but forbidden. Clients found to be in breach of data protection law, for example by hacking into computers, may be prosecuted.  The court jealously protects the privacy of an individual – even if it causes injustice in the divorce court.


However, as the courts make clear, in many cases the same information can be safely obtained legally and without personal risk, by a court-governed disclosure process, injunctions and search and seize orders.


Those who blunder on down this path can become vulnerable to virtual blackmail, by a similarly ruthless spouse. After all, if you are faced with the prospect of a disapproving judge, costs sanctions and criminal prosecution, it might be more sensible all round to settle…. for less. So this can be a boomerang of a dirty trick: it can turn around and smack you hard.


4. Assaulting the spouse and the new partner.


In one case I encountered, the wife threw a brick through the front window of her dentist husband’s surgery. This was a whammy in more ways than one as the glass shattered all over the dental assistant – also the husband’s new lover – who had been sitting at a desk by the window!


I was consulted in another case when the wife was in police custody. She had hired a hitman against her husband. She was traumatized by the stress of her divorce case, the fear of losing her home and the fear of losing her children in a hostile custody battle, initiated to reduce her financial settlement. The judge was sympathetic and gave her a conditional discharge. In the custody case the judge had no sympathy for the husband, who had driven his wife to the edge of sanity. She kept her children.


3. Using a “friend” as a spy, to gain access to the lawyer’s office.


The “friend” will pretend to befriend the wife. Alternatively she may be a current girlfriend of the wife’s who is secretly sympathetic to the husband, perhaps for her own ends. She offers a helping hand with the lawyers, goes along to meetings, gets to know all the tactics and advice – and reports everything back to the husband.


Call me cautious, but I don’t like it when friends accompany clients to meetings, because I don’t always trust their motives. How does my client know for certain that the sensitive information told to me and the careful advice I give will remain confidential? That the friend won’t be soon gossiping over lunch with the girls? How do we know that it will not end up in the wrong hands? My wariness comes from experience: in one case the wife’s “friend” turned out to be the husband’s lover.


2. “Conflicting out” the spouse’s lawyer.


“So”, says the prospective client, with affected nonchalance. “Does coming here today mean that my husband/wife can’t instruct you?”


A good lawyer can bring about an extremely successful outcome. It is better to get that lawyer onside. However some spouses are just as determined to ensure that good lawyers are placed beyond their partner’s reach, by creating “conflicts of interest”.


On one occasion, a husband telephoned ahead for an emergency appointment and was anxiously prepared to fly from the Caribbean to see me. He was too late. His wife was booked in the same day. On another, a client phoned in and, at his insistence, paid a substantial retainer fee on his credit card. Then he left for mainland Europe and started divorce proceedings there.


There can be ways around the “conflict of interest” trap. For example, my firm has a number of offices in the UK, staffed by different lawyers. It means that we can usually get round the problem by putting “Chinese walls” (information barriers) in place, and seeing the genuine client at another office, with a team who have had no previous dealings with the other spouse.


1. If all else fails…running off with the attorney!


I recall one case in which a devious spouse began an affair with his divorce lawyer. Having paid out his wife, he swiftly married his wealthy new love!

Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and this has been known to happen. It certainly gives an unfair advantage, along with vastly reduced legal fees…


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