Women (Usually) Are Getting Ripped Off in Divorce Settlements - Time to Give them Some Help

The divorce courts have become mired in disputes about who has what, and where. Not everyone loses out in this wrangling, of course. The lawyers' meters keep ticking as the very assets to be divided get depleted by fees.

Divorces begin with emotion but quickly end up being about money, which is why the law must be tougher on spouses who hide assets.

The main house, the cat, the hamster and the children are all there, visible issues to be discussed. So far, so straightforward.

Problems start from the relative ease with which money can be hidden behind complex corporate structures, often registered in distant, sunny places, such as Mauritius and Panama.

We need to stop assuming that people will disclose their wealth just because a judge asks them to. The late Scot Young died, after falling from a penthouse in central London, having claimed consistently to be penniless. Meanwhile, his ex-wife never saw the £20 million she was awarded after a bruising seven year court battle.

The issue of disclosure is concerning judges, too. The Supreme Court is now considering two cases where wives may have agreed settlements based on assumptions that spouses were worth a lot less than was true. In one case, the husband was found to have hidden a planned flotation of his firm, another was described by a judge as an "out-and-out rogue".

In very complex cases, including those involving the very large sums divorce tourism brings to the UK courts, welcome or otherwise, there may now be a case for state funding of recovery work.

The cost for this forensic accounting could be paid out of the settlement by both parties. This should at least be something judges have an option to order, instead of being almost powerless once they have exhausted imprisonment for contempt.

Otherwise, the regular diet of claim and counter claim, with one party inevitably holding most of the assets, will continue clogging up the courts. Furthermore, the spouse with the money can hire the smartest lawyers and advisers; the other often struggles to meet even modest legal fees.

At the very least the time has come to require an independent financial assessment during divorces, perhaps after the assets are deemed to exceed a certain threshold, instead of assuming honest disclosure.

Unfortunately, the much stated 'amicable divorce' where all is openly discussed is usually more an aim than an achievement, at least once the gloves are off and assets are being fought over.

The divorce courts have become mired in disputes about who has what, and where. Not everyone loses out in this wrangling, of course. The lawyers' meters keep ticking as the very assets to be divided get depleted by fees.

Forensic accountants do this discovery work, and impartially. They are investigators first and foremost, and not just for the big-ticket divorces that make up an increasing amount of their workload.

They can seek out hidden assets, find the clues that lead to off-shore bank account, reveal that less than transparent expenditure declaration.

Their value comes as a counter to an important issue: The problem with divorces is that one person always has the advantage of initiating proceedings, which gives them time to plan a web of financial deceit.

Because we now live in a globalised economy, so even the modestly wealthy can shunt money around at the click of a mouse key, it can take a particular skill to track down hidden funds.

Forensic accountants approach hidden assets the way one should a politician bearing gifts: with an immense degree of professional scepticism. If evidence suggests concealed wealth, they will find it. There is always a trail.

A skilled financial sleuth will look carefully at a business to work out what it might be really worth, know how to read bank statement and order books; and they can also mine company statutory records.

Trusts set up for charitable purposes, for example,will be examined, just to see whether the chief beneficiary ends up being the person who set it up.

But even when there is nothing to hide, forensic accountants can assess true rather than claimed value. This can be particularly useful when a family firm is at stake. How to unravel ownership of a business is an art.

Surprisingly, many people also have absolutely no clue about the money they need to live. A forensic accountant is objective and will be able to carry out a lifestyle analysis for both parties, which can help assess settlement claims.

The truth is that after the love has died, money starts talking. We need to make it easier to hear from all those distant hiding places where it ends up.

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