Proving a negative: How do you find hidden assets?

The final hearing in Mr and Mrs Young’s divorce saga is currently underway in the High Court in London. This divorce has made headlines before, notably earlier this year when Mr Young was jailed for six months having failed to provide proper financial disclosure to his wife and the court.

Mrs Young says her financial claims cannot be properly assessed as the court remains in the dark as to the true extent of her estranged husband’s wealth.   However she is reportedly prepared to accept £300m plus payment of her considerable legal fees to end proceedings which started when the former couple separated back in 2006.

Based on their previous jet-setting lifestyle and her (incomplete) knowledge of  her property-developer husband’s financial strategies, Mrs Young says her husband is now worth several billion pounds; Mr Young apparently maintains he is essentially penniless.  Who is telling the truth and how does the court deal with this impasse, when imprisoning Mr Young earlier this year apparently failed to flush out any further information from him?  Is Mrs Young chasing ghosts or has Mr Young master-minded a scheme which puts his wealth beyond the considerable reach of the divorce courts?  I will be following this case closely as the details unfold.

Generally, when dealing with financial settlements on divorce the issue of financial non-disclosure, real or imagined, can be problematic.  Those seeking a court-endorsed divorce settlement must provide to their estranged spouse (and the court) full information concerning their financial circumstances in order for a fully-informed and fair decision to be reached.  Knowledge of a spouse’s finances varies hugely, and as suspicion and mistrust are common features of any divorce it is often assumed that assets or income have been hidden to cheat the divorce courts, when in reality there is nothing significant left to uncover.

In the vast majority of cases, the true extent of the matrimonial finances can be established via answers to questionnaires produced after documents and disclosure have been exchanged; sometimes the help of a forensic accountant is enlisted to analyse transactions or company dealings.  Often this is a lengthy process as the financially dominant spouse reluctantly comes to accept that the court will insist on knowing the full extent of his or her finances.  In the present case, where the existence of huge sums is disputed and the husband essentially says he cannot prove a negative, will be of huge interest to divorce lawyers and the public alike.

When dealing with so-called ‘big money’ divorces it is usually the case that family property is locked away, or entirely hidden, via off-shore trust companies and off-shore tax-avoidance schemes.  Whilst these may be legitimate wealth-management strategies it does not mean that the protected funds are outside the scope of orders and settlements within divorce proceedings; the decision as to what constitutes a fair settlement is within the discretion of the court, and can only be reached once full financial disclosure has been made.

I suspect that, even though this is described as a ‘final hearing’, Mrs Young still faces a long road ahead to enforce whatever order the court ends up making against Mr Young, assuming the judge does not accept (following previous hearings) that he is really as penniless as he claims.

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