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Don’t Be Blindsided: Even Happily Married Women Need To Watch For Crazy Financial Curveballs

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“The checking account is empty, the savings account is empty. His closet is empty!”

“For years, he had me believing he just has a low libido. Turns out, he’s been having affairs all along—and buying his girlfriends lots of jewelry, too.”

“I thought we owned homes in Palm Beach and Nantucket together. Now I know he never put my name on those deeds—then he sold the properties for millions. Where is that money?”

“He wants a divorce? I knew things weren’t perfect but I never thought he wanted out!”

There are so many ways women can be financially blindsided in their marriages.

Through years of experience as a divorce financial adviserworking exclusively with women, I’ve known husbands to go to great lengths to keep assets out of a divorce settlement… often entirely behind their wives’ backs.

According to an article in the New York Post, Cristina Carta Villa can probably relate. Her husband Gabriel reportedly pulled a truly extraordinary stunt: A few months after they were wed, and unbeknownst to Cristina, it seems he filed for and obtained a divorce in the Dominican Republic. Here’s a woman who was evidently completely blindsided not only by her husband’s wish to be divorced, but by finding out she already wasdivorced, some 20 years after the fact!

Cristina’s first clue came in the mail, in the form of what she thought to be a routine tax bill for the Manhattan condominium she and Gabriel shared. Believing she was part owner of the property, Cristina was reportedly puzzled that her name wasn’t on that bill. Her “divorce” was discovered when she hired an attorney to investigate the matter. According to thePost, Gabriel claims that because he and Cristina are divorced, he is the sole owner of the condo. Cristina has since filed suit to nullify this divorce, which she says she did not know about and absolutely would not have agreed to. (We can only wonder whether she plans to file for divorce herself, once the suit about the Dominican divorce is resolved.)

Obviously, there’s a lot we don’t know about the details of this case, including why the divorce was sought in the Dominican Republic, and the validity of a divorce reportedly obtained in a country where neither spouse lives and which was reportedly not recorded in their home state of New York. (For information about divorces in which dual citizenship is a factor, please see my previous article on the topic.)

In its sheer audaciousness, though, the Villas’ story reminds me of the case of Michael and Debra Mandelbaum, who were also married for more than 20 years. Mr. Mandelbaum didn’t secretly file for divorce abroad; rather, he claimed that he and Debra were never legally married in the first place! Further, he contended that since they were never legally married, they can’t get legally divorced… which of course would free him from having to divide assets with Debra now that they’re breaking up.

It’s truly amazing how far some men will go to keep a fair divorce settlement from their wives.

What’s the moral of Ms. Carta Villa‘s story? From my professional perspective, it’s this:

Where your finances are concerned, be aware, and be involved.

It’s difficult to deceive someone who knows what’s what and can identify any red flags. The more you actively participate in managing marital finances—including major long-term decisions as well as day-to-day spending—the less likely it is your husband will be able to pull off some underhanded maneuvering.

So please, stay financially aware and involved throughout your marriage. It’s not enough to get up to speed and then back off. If you find that you’re increasingly leaving financial matters for your husband to handle on his own, it’s time to turn that situation around, because as you’ve just read, crazy curveballs do happen! Cristina Carta Villa, perhaps believing all was well, appears to have been thrown a doozy—and had she not given that tax bill a careful look, she might not have known anything was amiss.

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Reminder: My clients can tell many a tale of their exes’ lies, cheating, and all manner of attempted deceptions. The best of these stories are the ones in which deceitful intentions are exposed and foiled, and fair judgment prevails. Unfortunately, though, they don’t all work out that way, and many husbands do get away with hiding assets in divorce.

Hot tip: If you’re starting from scratch, begin by learning about everything you own (your assets) and everything you owe (your liabilities). A complete inventory of assets and liabilities is an excellent first step towards building a working knowledge of marital finances.

Legal matters: A prenuptial agreement can save untold time and anguish if your marriage ends in divorce. If Mr. Villa was concerned about keeping certain assets as separate property, he would have been better advised to work out an agreement to that effect than to try to obtain a divorce overseas, which an American court may well not recognize.

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