Guilty Until Proven Innocent by Cheryl Stein The traditional “innocent until proven guilty” is often reversed in matrimonial cases. One side is intent on presenting the other side as some sort of shady character in order to gain an advantage. A lot of times, it’s used as a strategy, but the party making these accusations typically believes what they’re saying. For example:


Where parties are foreigners, there’s the notion that what happens in their country of origin is not discoverable or discoverable with great cost and difficulty. A couple, originally from France or Italy, could have been living here for 20-30 years. The husband may have varied and complex businesses or investments, so the wife, intent on getting more money, will make accusations that her spouse has all sorts of accounts in other countries, and that money has disappeared over the years.

People maintain attachments to their country of origin, often flying back at least twice a year and staying for a month at a time. At one point, those parties often did have bank accounts in their home country — what happened to those accounts? These parties are constantly in a state of trying to prove their innocence and cooperation with the full disclosure and discovery process.

When a party asks what happened to those foreign accounts and their spouse explains it, the suspicious and accusing party believes what they want to believe, and it’s oftentimes very hard for the spouse who’s being demonized to dispel that accusation, especially for high net worth couples, where, often, at the time of divorce, there magically isn’t enough money to be divided.  

I have a client right now in that situation. There were millions of dollars made over the course of 12 years, and now they are both asking where it went. I know where it went — I see the way these people live. This is a case where both parties are scratching their heads. Both spouses think the other one’s lying and putting up a pretense. They both think the money is hidden in their country of origin, but the truth is, the money was probably spent right here in America, evaporated into thin air by their sumptuous and indulgent lifestyle.

Domineering Personalities:

Often, one spouse controls the finances and has a more domineering personality. When the person controlling the finances is domineering, there is often the view that they’re hiding things. It’s easy to accuse a controlling spouse of being underhanded and surreptitious.

Business Write Offs:

When the husband or wife owns a business, there are write-offs while they’re part of a family unit. Some business owners find ways to “write off” their family’s groceries, their wife’s manicures, and other household expenses. At the time of divorce, all those things that were once very helpful to the non-titled spouse, and allowed them more money to live on as a married couple, now gets used against the titled spouse to attack their credibility and get more money out of them.

There are those that would argue that she knew all about it — her signature was on the tax return. But then, the reverse could be said — she can only sign as to what she knows. He was the one that knew everything, and she signed for the expenses she knew.

Personal Work Ledgers:

Business owners, or anyone that has any sort of cash business, often have several ledgers to track how much money is really coming in. Lining up and going through all these ledgers can make the spouse’s head spin, and most of the time, the spouse doesn’t know what’s going on and how to accurately interpret and reconcile it all.

We always ask to see work ledgers as part of discovery, but in cases like this, we give special emphasis to it. We home in on personal work ledgers because a party will tell us that they know their spouse was extremely diligent about keeping those ledgers, recording every single penny that came in. I want to see those ledgers, because they’re usually the most accurate account of how much money was really made.

Debt-to-Income Ratio:

When people travel a lot or live lavishly, they can often be in huge debt. Their reported debt-to-income ratio is off-kilter, yet they’re driving extremely expensive cars. Sometimes, their spouse suspects that they are doing it on purpose to make themselves appear poor, on paper. Typically, judges are not fond of these types of people when they try to slither their way out of support payments. The assumption is that these people’s values are misplaced — they’d rather spend money on a luxury car than their families or that there is more money than they are purporting.

Attorneys should always encourage their clients to be ethical and forthcoming. We don’t expect people to be anywhere near perfect, but we do expect them to be trying to do the right thing. If a client did not reveal something in the beginning and then does so along the way, it is our job to correct the record. If we can see from the beginning that the judge does not believe a client and the case continues on this note, we must do a cost/benefit analysis with the client: should they settle or continue to litigate. We don’t want a client to spend large sums on litigation when, ultimately, they may not prevail, because their credibility is questioned. It may be better to settle on a comfortable enough middle ground with the other side than risk an unfavorable ruling or divorce judgment.

Feel free to contact The Law & Mediation Office of Cheryl Stein to schedule a consultation.

Cheryl Stein, Esq.
The Law and Mediation Offices of Cheryl Stein
745 Fifth Avenue, Suite 500
New York, NY 10151
Phone: (646) 884-2324