After 36 years of marriage, Sheila Sammons, 62, suspected her husband was having an affair. Distraught, she googled at 3 a.m. and found a not-exactly-legal suggestion on how to reveal a double life: Run a credit report.
Sammons was shocked at what she discovered: “Two different P.O. boxes and three accounts with different financial institutions that I knew nothing about.”
Betraying her was incomprehensible enough, “but never in a million years did I think he would steal money from me. Ever.”
Turns out he was doing both.
Sammons found nearly $175,000 in the secret accounts. Her husband, a bond trader, also had a penchant for collecting gold coins. She didn’t know where they were, but had a hunch.
“I pulled a gigantic ladder up four flights of stairs, to check his office ceiling. It was 15 feet high. I’m afraid of heights. I opened the trap door, and all these coins started rolling into my face.”
There in the rafters, stuffed sloppily into grocery bags, was $275,000 worth of gold. Sammons photographed and later inventoried it, taking care to replace the bags as she found them.
During the divorce proceedings, she sent the pictures to their attorneys. “His lawyer was furious” that he hadn’t disclosed the asset. “It was then that he knew I was many steps ahead of him.”
Sheila Sammons is a dramatic case, but financial infidelity — the misdirection, concealment or theft of marital funds — is depressingly common, says attorney Regina DeMeo, of Bethesda, Md. She estimates that a third of her clients are divorcing over financial dishonesty, more of which is often revealed during legal discovery.
“I’ve had several cases where we’ve discovered unpaid taxes of over $100,000,” she says.
The court doesn’t care much about your broken heart, but judges do pay close attention to dissipation of marital assets, according to DeMeo. Follow the money trail and if there’s an affair, document “expensive meals, hotels, vacations or gifts” for paramours, she advises. You can ask for that money back.
Cheating and financial unfaithfulness go hand in hand, according to Vickie Adams, a certified divorce financial analyst in Los Angeles. Conducting a double life costs money.
“Most financial infidelity does not include marital infidelity, but almost all marital infidelity involves financial infidelity.”
When it comes to being chumped, romantically or otherwise, self-protection requires a mental shift, Adams says.
“Many women mistakenly feel that protecting themselves financially telegraphs ‘you didn’t believe in us.’
“I’ve had clients initially accept deals that were so much less than they legally deserved because they wanted to be the bigger person or were afraid to anger their partners.”
It can be a very costly mistake. “Those who don’t take a clear stand are often run over.”
Here is Adams’ advice:
Conflict avoidance or combativeness around money is a bad sign. “Many couples haven’t had genuine conversations about money because it always leads to a fight,” Adams says. Bad actors “create smokescreens” to deflect and noncombative partners learn to avoid discussing it.
Meet regularly to discuss money before there are issues. “Sit down for a review every six months and run annual credit checks for both of you. Have regular discussion about budgets and goals. No one with self-worth wants to act like a warden for too long. Face this head on.”
If you suspect something shady, get up to speed quickly on your finances. Collect bank statements, tax returns, investment and retirement accounts.
Be aware of changes in appearance or expensive hobbies. “When someone has an affair it often goes with an upgraded wardrobe or better physique. Often a partner’s unwillingness to discuss finances is the first signal that someone wants complete control or has something to hide.”
Some money is too expensive. “It can be very expensive to trace small assets. It’s not worth it to spend $20,000 to recoup a year’s worth of $50 withdrawals.” Try to get a full picture and prioritize what’s worth fighting about and what isn’t.
Sheila Sammons says she regrets not asking more questions during her long marriage. “He was an expert in the financial world and I trusted him 100 percent with all of our money. He was always bringing me papers to sign to transfer funds from here to there, and I paid absolutely no attention to what I was signing.”
But once she got wise, she’s thankful she fought back. Discovering those hidden assets meant she was able to negotiate a comfortable divorce settlement. Her ex married his mistress. Sammons is on her way to hike Machu Picchu.
Need to protect yourself from financial abuse? Check out these resources:
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