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Hiding assets in divorce more difficult in digital age

With the exception of the most amicable divorces, there's often a temptation for splitting spouses to gain or retain everything they can. Asset and property division are thorny issues, particularly in high net worth divorces. According to the National Endowment for Financial Education, 31 percent of U.S. adults who combined their assets with a spouse or unmarried partner admit to being deceptive about money. And 58 percent say they've hidden cash from the other person.

Sometimes people are so determined to prevent their spouses from getting their money that they go to great lengths to hide it. But it's not as easy as it used to be.

Attorneys no longer have to put in time-consuming legwork to find irregularities in the financial records of a client's spouse. Advanced search tools can turn up red flags in digital bank statements and credit card bills in a matter of minutes and spouses themselves can snoop fairly easily on each other. Social media sites, Web search histories and cellphones can reveal all manner of financial secrets, if a spouse can gain access to them. Some have even installed software on their spouse's computers to find information on everything from secret stock trades to purchases on extra-marital affairs.

But are these electronic searches legal? That depends, both on the type of search and the state where the couple lives. While you can certainly do a Google search on your ex, you could be breaking the law by hacking into his or her smartphone or Facebook page. Installing spyware on a computer may not be legal, either. You also need to consider that even if your efforts are legal, they may not be admissible in court.

And that leads us to the downside of snooping on your spouse in search of hidden assets. If you're found to have gathered the evidence illegally, you'll not only lose your credibility in court, but you could go to jail for the offense and your attorney could be forced to pay fines or even lose his or her license.

To avoid this kind of trouble, one data forensic expert has an old-fashioned approach: If you suspect your spouse is hiding assets, try simply having a heart-to-heart talk about your suspicions, and your spouse may actually open up. To some it might sound impossible, but at the end of a marriage that's dying anyway, it just might work.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "Why Hiding Money From Your Spouse Has Gotten a Lot Harder," Veronica Dagher, April 30, 2012

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