Electronic Discovery Helps Find Money Hidden by a Spouse During Divorce

May 3, 2012
By Thomas M. Huguenor on May 3, 2012 1:09 PM |

T-Mobile Dash wikiSpouses going through a divorce have hidden assets from one another for as long as marriage and divorce have existed. Of course, not every divorcing spouse does this, but it is in the interest of both a divorcing spouse and a divorce attorney to know how to fight against the concealment of assets. Recent technological developments, such as the increasing use of computers and the internet for financial transactions, and widespread use of social media, offer a number of useful tools. Using the discovery process during divorce litigation to collect digital information, commonly known as electronic discovery or "e-discovery," can help a party to a divorce find the others spouse's misconduct or deception.

The Wall Street Journal cites statistics from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) showing that eighty-one percent of the lawyers in that organization reported in 2010 that they had seen a five-year increase in the number of cases that used evidence obtained from social media sites. A year later, ninety-two percent of members reported an increase over a three-year period of evidence obtained from smartphones appearing in divorce cases. Social media and smartphones can provide a wealth of evidence of a spouse's conduct (or misconduct), but they also often play a role in efforts to hide assets.

The intersection of internet and smartphone technology with the age-old practice of hiding assets presents both opportunities and risks for litigants and their attorneys. Hiding or failing to disclose assets in a divorce case could expose a party to contempt or other penalties in some cases, and it could play a role in a judge's final division of the marital estate. A lawyer who helps a client conceal assets could face discipline as well.

At the same time, attorneys and their clients must take care as to how they collect electronic information. As the Wall Street Journal notes, it is legal to conduct Google searches on a spouse. It is not legal to hack into a spouse’s password-protected computer, smartphone, or social media account to gather information. Illegally-obtained evidence tends to be inadmissible in court, and the act of obtaining it could expose both a party and their lawyer to civil and criminal penalties.

One major problem with using new technologies to conceal assets is that computers and smartphones leave traces everywhere they go in cyberspace. Key-tracking software can log all the keystrokes made on a computer, creating a record of everything someone typed, whether they saved it or not. Smartphones leave multiple trails, with call logs showing phone calls made and received and GPS data showing the phone owner’s location. Much of this information is discoverable.

Document scanning technology allows quick review of massive amounts of information, although it requires a substantial investment of time and equipment to digitize a large number of pages. What might have required weeks of document review by a lawyer searching for accounting irregularities or evidence of misconduct now takes a computer mere moments. Whereas a person hiding information or assets once might have buried the opposition in paper, hoping they would miss the key information on one page out of thousands, computers can find that information quickly.

San Diego divorce lawyer Thomas Huguenor is a board-certified specialist in Family Law, certified by the State Bar of California, and has 35 years of experience helping people through the family law process, including divorce and child support. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us online or at (858) 458-9500.

More Blog Posts:

California Loses Storage Devices Holding Personal Information of 800,000 Child Support Obligors, San Diego Divorce Attorney Blog, April 12, 2012

Bigamy Charge Results When Social Media Connects Man's Wife to His Other Wife, San Diego Divorce Attorney Blog, March 29, 2012

San Diego Court Places Limits on Parents' Duty to Disclose Financial Changes, San Diego Divorce Attorney Blog, January 19, 2012

Photo credit: 'T-Mobile Dash wiki' by Bovineone at en.wikipedia [GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons