Safety deposit boxes- a story to make you check what is inside
Do you rent a safety deposit box at your local bank or credit union? If so, do you know what is inside? Before your divorce begins, you need to inventory what is in that safety deposit box and take photos. What I am not telling you to do is to deny your spouse access to the box or to take her key, or to do anything like that. If your divorce has already started, there is likely a standing or temporary order that bars you from doing so. I am saying that you need to inventory what is in that box as soon as possible in case your spouse is not as conscientious as you are.
Here is a story to illustrate my point. Our office represented a gentleman who lived in Conroe and was getting a divorce in Montgomery County. He was on the road a lot for work (he worked in oil and gas). As a result, he was rarely home and did not have much of an opportunity to keep tabs on his home, belongings, or the gun safe he kept in the garage of the family home. He had a general idea, he told me, about what was inside. His wife was a stay-at-home mother and had ready access to all of his property and the community property within the house.
The only exception was the gun safe. Our client kept personal effects, firearms, and most notably, $75,000 in cash within the safe. Why so much money, you may be asking. He would tell me that he was used to the boom and bust nature of his work and, as a result, kept the cash handy in case he needed to stop in and pick some up. He banked at a local bank, and having a job that took him all over the country meant that he could not stop in at a local branch to take out cash. So, when he was at home, he would stop by the safe when he needed some money and would be on his merry way back to work.
When his wife filed for divorce, our client didn’t think anything about the money he kept in the safe. He thought it was, well, safe. His wife didn’t know the passcode. This was one of those safes that locked using a code that you punched into a dial-pad like when entering your PIN at the grocery store. She had never talked to him about the safe. She had never shown any interest in the content of the safe. She did not know what, exactly, was in the safe.
The problem began when our client returned home to collect some clothes and his son for a weekend visit. Our client and his wife had temporary orders in place that set forth a visitation schedule, and that weekend was time for him and his son to be together. So when he came home to pick up some clothes and cash, he was shocked to find that the safe had been tampered with. The keypad had been nearly destroyed. When he opened the safe, everything was untouched except for the $75,000, which had gone missing.
He was frantic when he contacted me that Friday afternoon to tell me that the money had gone missing. He had never before said to me about the money, the safe, or any of the other contents thought to be within the safe. The first I had heard of it was that afternoon. This was sad for many reasons- not the least because we had always asked clients to inventory their homes at the beginning of the divorce. Please take photos of the property and its location in the house. Make sure you know where your belongings are so that if they were to go missing, we can raise the issue with the judge.
Since this client was on the road so often, I think he never really took our warning seriously to keep track of his belongings. As such, an incomplete inventory was done. The safe was never even mentioned to us. So, we reported a violation of the temporary orders but had no proof of the breach having been committed. His wife’s attorney, of course, said she was unaware of anything having gone on (probably the truth).
What ended up happening was that our client remained upset at the money being taken. This was technically community property income that the opposing spouse had taken. She was taking money that she had a claim to but did not use means that we’re not above the board. She violated her husband’s trust- embattled as they were at that point in the middle of a divorce.
Ultimately we mediated the case and settled before a trial was reached. During mediation, we did get a concession from the wife that she had taken the money. She was a stay-at-home mother and was getting spousal maintenance for a year after the divorce. She negotiated for a primary conservatorship and many of the rights associated with making decisions regarding medical and educational choices. This was appropriate, and our client believed it because he was usually thousands of miles from home and could not participate in the daily decision-making for his son.
Our client had the money returned to him. I was surprised as anyone at this result. This accused a person of robbing a bank but having no evidence (other than opportunity) that a crime had been committed. Our client learned a lesson, and I did as well. That lesson was always to press clients to document their assets and inventory their property as strictly as possible. Do not leave anything to chance.
Oh, yea! Before I forget to tell you. The thing that caused our client to know that his wife was the one who tampered with his safe and had taken the money? Well, he had contacted a local locksmith to come by and examine the safe with him to see what had been done to it. As I said, the safe was usable, but the keypad was nearly destroyed. Something had happened, but our client wasn’t sure what. So, he contacted a locksmith.
When the locksmith arrived at his house, he told our client that he had been contacted that morning by the client’s wife to come in and open up the safe. Our client was amazed that he had gotten in touch with the same locksmith that his wife had used to open the safe. After talking to the opposing attorney (who had spent the better part of 10 minutes denying that any harmful acts had occurred), I mentioned this, and she became much more willing to work with us in mediation. I suppose the thought of us calling in this locksmith to testify against her client made her think a little differently about the situation!
What should all this tell you?
This story was meant to underscore the importance of documenting everything in your divorce. Yes, it is tedious. Yes, it takes time away from other things in life. No, I do not expect that you will have issues like the one our former client did. However, the lesson is as applicable for your case as it was for his- always make sure you have your assets protected by keeping tabs on them. Do not allow yourself to get sloppy because you are tired, annoyed, or otherwise angry about the system. Those emotions will not help you win the day if an angry, soon-to-be ex-wife steals money from your gun safe.
Do not move out of the house unless your attorney advises you to do so
A standard move in divorces is for one spouse (usually the husband) to move out early on in the process. The motivation for doing so is usually a good one- to lessen tension and turmoil between the spouses. If you are going through a stressful time with another person, it is customary to seek distance from that person. Especially if you and that person have been extremely agitated with one another and that agitation has led to incidents of violence or near violence. A little space would make sense in those circumstances.
However, if someone’s safety is not at issue and you and your spouse are generally amicable with one another, it is not a good idea for you to move out of the house early in your divorce. This is especially true if you want to keep the home and win primary conservatorship of your kids in the divorce. The reason is, courts do not like to see a parent willingly leave the family home when they do not have to. Possession, as it has been said before, is 9/10 of the law. When you leave the family home, you cede control to your spouse. This is not a good thing if you want to keep it.
If you or your spouse can remain in the home and pay the mortgage on your own after the divorce, that spouse is thought to have the upper hand when it comes to having kids live with them full time. This is not always the case, but for the most part, if you can stay in the family home and have never left, you will have the advantage in this area. Since this is almost always the mother who does so, I think of this as the main reason mothers are typically named the primary conservator of the children.
Stay in the house as long as you can. It saves you money on rent. It keeps you from having to live with your parents. The judge will be more willing to award you substantial time with your kids if you are not living on a friend’s couch. The judge will take you as he finds you. He will not consider the most favorable background story of yours that he can. If you are not in a desirable living situation, he will not award you as much time with your kids. Or, you will have to mediate the case, and your spouse will not give you an inch in negotiations because she knows the judge will side with her in a temporary order hearing.
Issues related to insurance and divorce- tomorrow’s blog post topic
I hope that today’s blog post was both entertaining and informative. I think lessons learned from people that have been in your shoes can be beneficial to those of you who are just beginning your road in a family law case. Hopefully, you never find yourself in a situation as extreme as the one I described today, but if you do, please remember that you have options. Those options should start and stop with finding an attorney who will have your back and push for your rights until the end of your case.
If you have any questions about the material that we presented today, please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. We are proud that our licensed family law attorneys have handled divorces and child custody cases of all sorts. We are inside the family law courts of southeast Texas as much or more so than any attorneys from any other law office. We pledge always to represent you in good faith should you choose to become a client of ours.
A free-of-charge consultation with one of our licensed family law attorneys is only a phone call away. These consultations are an excellent opportunity to have your questions answered and addressed directly by a legal team member.