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. What I am saying is that you need to inventory what is in that box as soon as possible in case your spouse is not as scrupulous 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, his 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 all of the community property within the house.
The only exception was the gun safe. Our client kept personal effects, some firearms and most notably $75,000 in cash within the safe. Why so much cash, you may be asking. He would tell me that he was used to 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 just 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 from him 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 you are entering your pin number at the grocery store. She had never talked to him about the safe. She had never shown any interests in the content of the safe. She had no knowledge of what, exactly, was in the safe.
The problem began when our client returned home one day 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 told 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 of which was because we had always asked clients to inventory their homes at the beginning of the divorce. Take photos of property and its location in the home. Make sure you know where your belongings are so that if they were to go missing we could raise the issue with the judge.
Since this client was on the road so often I think he never really took seriously our warning to keep track of his belongings. As such, an incomplete inventory was done. The safe was never even mentioned to us. So, we had the report of a violation of the temporary orders but had no proof of the violation 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 had been taken by the opposing spouse. She was taking money that she had a claim to but did not using means that were not above the board. She violated the trust of her husband- 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 primary conservatorship and many of the rights associated with being able to make decisions regarding medical and educational choices. This was appropriate, our client believed, 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 was accusing 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 to always 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 absolutely 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. Like I said, the safe was usable but the keypad was nearly destroyed. Obviously 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 up the safe. I mentioned this after talking to the opposing attorney (who had spent the better part of 10 minutes denying that any bad acts had occurred) 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 is 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 to win the day in the event that 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 common move in divorces is for one spouse (usually the husband) to move out early on in the process. I think 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 normal 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 house and/or 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 possession to your spouse. This is not a good thing if you want to keep it.
If you or your spouse are able to remain in the home and pay the mortgage on your own after the divorce, it is that spouse who is thought to have the upper hand when it comes to having to kids live with him or her 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 why mothers are typically named as 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 orders 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 really helpful 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 in the event that you do please remember that you have options. Those options should start and stop with finding an attorney who will have your back and will 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 of the family law courts of southeast Texas as much or more so than any attorneys from any other law office. We pledge to always represent you in good faith should you choose to become a client of ours.
A free of charge consultations with one of our licensed family law attorneys is only a phone call away. These consultations are a great opportunity to have your questions answered and issues addressed directly by a member of our legal team.