Finding Hidden Assets in a Divorce

By | Community Property, Divorce, Just and Right, Marital Property Division, Separate Property

In order to effect a just and right distribution of the martial assets, it necessarily follows that the first step is to find all the assets and debts. A divorce lawsuit has the same tools any other commercial lawsuit would have when it comes to finding assets belonging to your spouse or to the community.

There are four basic tools to finding assets: inventories, written discovery, oral discovery and third party discovery.

Each party typically discloses assets and liabilities in an inventory which commonly initiates the exchange of financial information. Inventories list common assets such as real estate, securities, an other interests as well as debts such as mortgages, credit cards and personal loans. They are typically filled out by each party under oath and then exchanged between the parties or their attorneys.

Written discovery is a useful tool for seeking more detailed information regarding assets and debts. Written discovery is comprised of interrogatory requests, production requests, requests for admission and requests for disclosure.

Interrogatories are questions asked of opposing parties that require answers under oath. For example a common interrogatory is, “Please list each and every bank account in which you or your spouse owns an interest.” The responding party is obligated to disclose each bank account in response to this question.

Requests for production often seek corresponding documents to interrogatory responses. For example, a common request for production is, “Please produce bank statements for the preceding 3 years from each account your claim separate property is held.” Requests for production can also include a request for inspection, which could be used to inspect a hard drive or books and records.

Requests for admissions are questions that would typically require a yes or no answer. Although not as popular as other requests, they can be valuable in narrowing the issues. An example of a request for admission is, “Admit or deny that the account ending in 123 is comprised of separate property funds belonging to wife.”

A request for disclosure is a standard set of requests that seek information regarding parties with knowledge of relevant facts, the amount in controversy as well as identification of experts among other essential issues in every lawsuit.

In deserving situations, phones and computers could be required to be produced to conduct forensic discovery on the hard drive. Electronic discovery is expensive as is any other situation in which an expert is needed to analyze data. In more and more situations, the expense is justified.

Discovery is permitted from third parties just as it is from parties in the case and is especially valuable if a party is not forthcoming in the discovery process. For example, the power of subpoena can require a bank, employer, partnership or any entity or person with information pertaining to the debts and assets in a case to produce documents or sit for a deposition.

Oral discovery a/k/a deposition discovery can be used to elicit testimony from a party or any other person or entity that may have information pertaining to the proceedings. A deposition is similar to the questioning one might have at trial except that it is typically performed in an attorney’s office, in front of a court reporter and or videographer. The testimony is still under oath the same as if it was in front of the court and can be used as evidence at trial. A deposition could be used in situations where interrogatories are not sufficient for determining the factual complexities of the issues. For example, if a spouse has a complicated partnership interest and more information is needed to explain partnership documents, a party can take the partner’s deposition to resolve the complexities.

What can a pre-marital agreement do for me?

By | Community Property, Divorce, Marital Property Division, Pre-Marital Agreements, Separate Property

I can’t resist commenting on the recent drama with Weiner, Schwarzenegger and Edwards. Could a carefully crafted pre-martial agreement have reduced the likely fallout? Pre-marital agreements, by definition, prepare for the unexpected. No one ever thinks they will divorce when they get married. But most intelligent people know life is hard and it’s reasonable to expect the unexpected. Whether or not “love children” are reasonable to expect is a different question.

Without a pre-marital agreement, Texas courts typically order a fifty-fifty community property division. Fifty-fifty seems presumptively fair except no two divorces are alike and often times people make disproportionate amounts of money, incur different amounts of debt and make different career sacrifices for their family. And sometimes a spouse has independently caused the break-up of the marriage. I’ve heard rumors that Michael Douglas and Katherine Zeta-Jones have a pre-marital agreement that provides for a disproportionate share of their estate to be awarded in the event of infidelity.

With the rise of second marriages and children having more than one parent, it seems that pre-marital agreements should be standard and not just divorce planning for the rich. If your career suffers so that you can raise your spouse’s children, is your spouse going to provide for your children in their will? If your spouse has a significant amount of separate property and you are married for twenty years, shouldn’t some of that separate property be re-characterized as community property? If you and your spouse have agreed to go to counseling before filing for divorce, why not put that in writing?

There are so many options for tailoring a pre-martial agreement to you and your spouse’s specific needs. The only major exception is that you cannot eliminate the need for child support in a pre-marital agreement. Otherwise, if you and your fiancé have any important agreements on how your marriage will function, consider speaking with your attorney about a pre-marital agreement.

Common Law Marriage is Like a Tattoo

By | Community Property, Divorce, Just and Right, Marital Property Division

Common law marriage is like a tattoo: easy to get, impossible to get off. Okay, maybe not impossible but you get the point. There are only three requirements to having a common law marriage in Texas. You must live together, you must have an agreement to be married and you must “hold out” as husband and wife. The “holding out” requirement is a legal term encompassing many factors that generally show the court you behave like a married couple. To get a tattoo, I think you have to be of age and probably under the influence.

As easy as it is to meet these general requirements, especially relative to the cost and time involved in a formal wedding, proving them can cause all kinds of problems in a divorce. And for those that are lucky enough to pass away married, there can also be problems proving the marriage existed in probate court.

The problems are in proving the three subjective and fact intensive requirements. There is no exonerating DNA-like test in this regard. Living together is relatively easy to prove under normal circumstances, but what about the requirement to have an agreement to be married? To prove this, a party must show that they intended to have a present, immediate, and permanent marital relationship. People are living together more and more and behaving like married people but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have agreed to be husband and wife permanently. As Dr. Laura would say, you need a ring and a date. On the other hand, a ring and a date evidencing an engagement could defeat the agreement requirement as the definition of engagement admits the parties are not yet married.

Convincing the court that the parties “held out” as husband and wife could also be difficult. For example, if the parties don’t refer to each other as husband and wife in public, don’t file joint tax returns, or don’t list each other as spouses in medical or legal documents, this requirement could be defeated. But if they owned real property and debt jointly as husband and wife, then they might have a chance of proving the “holding out” requirement.

The hard to get off part is the fact that once common law marriage is proved, it is just as difficult to divorce as it is when you have a formal wedding, if not more difficult. If the court finds your relationship met the three requirements, your assets and debts will be divided in a just and right manner. Most people consider this scenario to generally mean your assets and debts could be split 50/50 but this is not necessarily the case. See my blog “5 Factors Affecting the Just and Right Distribution”. For these reasons, common law marriage should not be entered into lightly.

5 Factors Affecting the “Just and Right” Distribution

By | Community Property, Just and Right, Marital Property Division, Separate Property

A court’s guiding principle in dividing community property in a divorce is based upon the “just and right” standard. Although each spouse has an equal interest in community property, the division won’t necessarily be fifty-fifty. Here is a list of 5 factors that can affect the court’s award of community property.

1. Who has the children? Do the children have particular or expensive needs that would justify awarding one spouse more property due to the increased need at home?

2. Education and Employability? Will one spouse have to start over because he put the other through graduate school while neglecting his own career?

3. Separate Property? If one spouse inherited enough for a lifetime, a court could award the other spouse a disproportionate share of the community.

4. Fraud. If a spouse lent money to his girlfriend during the marriage, an argument could be made that he is entitled to less because of the fraud.

5. Age. Is one spouse going to live a lot longer? Maybe Ashton Kutcher could make the argument that he will live longer and need more assets.