It's None of Your Beeswax! by Cheryl Stein

I once read in a psychology journal that you can learn more about a person by looking through their drawers for a few minutes than you can by living with them for many years. Drawers are where people hide things, and oftentimes, even insightful, intuitive people find out they are living with someone that they do not know so well. It doesn’t matter the duration of the marriage. The irony is that marriage is commitment, yet it’s often in the unraveling that people come to know each other in a much deeper way than they ever did. 

A couple of reasons for this include:

1.  Hindsight is 20/20. When you look backwards at things, they start to make sense.

2.  Through the discovery/disclosure process, each person learns a lot about the other that they may not have been privy to learning before. 

In mediation, the discovery process is not enforced, but each party has to sign in the agreement that there has been full disclosure; that they are satisfied with the disclosure; and that the agreements they come to are fair and equitable. Sometimes, parties choose to waive full disclosure for various reasons, including that they just want to get the process over with; that they want to have an amicable relationship with their ex-spouse and feel the disclosure process will create too much hostility; and that the disclosure process is too expensive and cumbersome. In these cases, we need to warn the parties that they may be blindly signing away some of their rights and include in the agreement that the parties waived their rights to full disclosure.  

In litigation, parties have to fill out a Statement of Net Worth, where they must include their separate and joint assets. Oftentimes when I’m working with a client on the Statement of Net Worth, they will give me a first draft that does not include their separate property. They ask me about a dozen times, “Do I really have to include that separate property?” They may further state in exasperation, “It’s nobody’s B.I. Business!” They hid that separate property from their spouse during the marriage and it’s like standing naked having to reveal it. I’ve seen cases where all of a sudden the party got so scared and started to agree to settle when the judge ordered them to reveal their separate property in totality. 

Most people don’t like their spouse better after discovery. Parties have “A-ha!” moments; things start to make sense to them. First of all, people see how their spouses spent money because personal and business credit card statements are subpoenaed. If one spouse billed a lot of $500 meals at restaurants and hotel charges during a specific time frame, it often confirms people’s suspicions that their spouse was having an affair during that period. 

Even through the discovery process, divorcing parties may not be satisfied. They still may feel there’s something underneath the surface that they’re not scraping up; that the other party was clever enough to hide something over the course of 25 years.   

The presumption is that anything accumulated during the marriage is marital property. The person who claims separate property must prove that. Tracing exactly what is separate and what is marital property hinges on the discovery process. A lot of times separate and marital property can become commingled, which we’ll talk about in another blog. 

This is obviously less important for people who get married when they’re very young, as they often don’t have a lot that’s separate. But once people get up there in years before getting married, and there’s a lot that’s separate, the tracing process becomes important.  

When clients decide if they want to settle or proceed, they have to be fully equipped. They need to have seen the numbers themselves. They need to have experienced some of the process that we were going through in litigation. They have to understand that what we were trying to do during discovery wasn’t just ordering people around. We were trying to find out what the best possible deal is, based on the numbers and the situation at hand. 

What’s interesting is that people try to lie so obviously. For example, one spouse may claim on their Statement of Net Worth that their car payment is $300 a month, but when you look at their credit card statements, it clearly shows that they’re paying $750 a month, or vice versa. 

I have my clients take an active role in the discovery process. I have them tell me everything they know and anything they want subpoenaed. Records are subpoenaed when litigation attorneys are not forthcoming. In addition to the attorneys, the parties themselves should look through their spouse’s records and account statements to look for inconsistencies, based on their experience being in a relationship with the person. 

Feel free to contact The Law and Mediation Offices of Cheryl Stein with any questions.

Cheryl Stein, Esq.
The Law and Mediation Offices of Cheryl Stein
Offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn
Phone: (646) 884-2324