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If Your Spouse is Hiding Divorce Assets, Your Options Are Limited by Law

by | Jan 4, 2015

If you believe your spouse is hiding divorce assets, you have a number of options in order to find those assets, but your search will be limited by privacy statutes. The first and best advice is to hire a top-rated, knowledgeable family law attorney, who is familiar with the process of divorce discovery. Divorce discovery offers many avenues, including interrogatories, request for production of documents, depositions and more. An experienced Wisconsin family law attorney will aid you in the completion of divorce discovery and will also know where to find and retain forensic accountants who are able to professionally aid in the search.

However, if you resort to “self-help” and handle your divorce pro se, be aware that the law relative to divorce discovery, particularly electronic discovery, is changing. It is absolutely necessary to make sure that any actions you take are within statutory requirements. Do not do anything illegal. If you do act outside the law, any evidence you obtain may be inadmissible in court, although the evidence may ultimately be persuasive in negotiation and resolution efforts.

Within legal perimeters, consider the following sources for determining whether or not your spouse is hiding divorce assets and where those assets are located:

  1. Your spouse’s computer history.
  2. LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other social networks.
  3. Keystroke software which records each stroke on your spouse’s computer.
  4. Your spouse’s phone.
  5. GPS on your spouse’s phone or vehicles.
  6. Bank statements and online accounts.
  7. Your spouse’s checking account and credit card information.
  8. Google search of your spouse’s name.
  9. Your spouse’s text messages.
  10. Paypal account.
  11. Income tax returns for the past years.
  12. Websites your spouse routinely visits.
  13. Public and paid online people search databases.
  14. Photos and other downloads on your spouse’s phone.
  15. IT expert.
  16. Your spouse’s emails if the email account is not password protected.
  17. Your spouse’s credit reports.
  18. Ask. Your spouse may be open and honest if the issue is pressed.
  19. Loan applications your spouse may have submitted to any bank, credit card company, auto purchase, etc.
  20. Safe deposit box.

All of the above ideas for locating hidden assets, however, require prior review of legal barriers.

In Wisconsin, the following statutes address personal and electronic privacy:

Wis. Stat., Sec. 943.201 Unauthorized  use of an individual’s personal identifying information or documents provides “Whoever, for any of the following purposes, intentionally uses, attempts to use, or possesses with intent to use any personal identifying information or personal identification document of an individual, including a deceased individual, without the authorization or consent of the individual and by representing that he or she is the individual, that he or she is acting with the authorization or consent of the individual, or that the information or document belongs to him or her is guilty of a Class H. felony: (a) To obtain credit, money, goods, services, employment, or any other thing of value or benefit. (b) To avoid civil or criminal process or penalty. (c) To harm the reputation, property, person, or estate of the individual.”  This statute is narrowly interpreted to apply only when a person intentionally uses an individual’s personal information to harm that individual’s reputation. The statute does not prevent revealing reputation-harming information as long as the method chosen does not entail pretending to be the targeted individual. State v. Baron, 2009 WI 58, 318 Wis. 2d 60, 769 N.W.2d 34, 07-1289.

Wis. Stat., Sec. 943.70 addresses Computer Crimes:  “(2) Offenses against computer data and programs. (a)  Whoever willfully, knowingly and without authorization does any of the following may be penalized as provided in pars. (b) and (c): 1.  Modifies data, computer programs or supporting documentation. 2.  Destroys data, computer programs or supporting documentation. 3.  Accesses computer programs or supporting documentation. 4.  Takes possession of data, computer programs or supporting documentation. 5.  Copies data, computer programs or supporting documentation. 6.  Discloses restricted access codes or other restricted access information to unauthorized persons…(3) Offenses against computers, computer equipment or supplies. (a)  Whoever willfully, knowingly and without authorization does any of the following may be penalized as provided in par. (b): 1.  Modifies computer equipment or supplies that are used or intended to be used in a computer, computer system or computer network. 2.  Destroys, uses, takes or damages a computer, computer system, computer network or equipment or supplies used or intended to be used in a computer, computer system or computer network. (b)  Whoever violates this subsection is guilty of: 1.  A Class A misdemeanor unless subd. 2., 3. or 4. applies. 2.  A Class I felony if the offense is committed to defraud or obtain property. 3.  A Class H felony if the damage to the computer, computer system, computer network, equipment or supplies is greater than $2,500. 4.  A Class F felony if the offense creates a substantial and unreasonable risk of death or great bodily harm to another.”

In the statute, “access codes or other restricted access information” refers to codes, passwords, or other information that permits access to a computer system or to programs or data within a system. Burbank Grease Services v. Sokolowski, 2006 WI 103, 294 Wis.2d 274, 717 N.W.2d 781, 04-0468.

Wis. Stat. Chapter 813 allows injunctive relief to compel compliance with Wis. Stat. Sec. 943.201 to prevent or stop the disclosure of information, data, computer programs or supporting documentation.The bottom line is twofold: while options are available to search for hidden assets in a divorce action, some of those options are limited by statutory privacy protections. Before embarking on an investigation, your best option is to contact an experienced Wisconsin divorce attorney or experienced Wisconsin forensic accountant to guide you in your search. If you do decide to proceed pro se, be careful and follow the law.

Written by Linda Vanden Heuvel

Linda is a skilled litigator but also has the ability to negotiate favorable settlements on behalf of her clients. She saves her clients time, money, and emotional distress through settlement negotiations.
Divorce | Estate Law | Family Law

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