Hi, Helaine: My husband and I divorced five years ago. Because I had no money -- I had taken a big career hit by staying home for a decade to raise our children -- I accepted his suggestion that we go through mediation instead of getting separate lawyers. I’ve recently discovered that he had a lot more stashed away in secret accounts I didn’t know existed. Do I have any recourse? He is surely relying on my not being able to afford an expensive lawsuit. -- Broke Ex-Wife
Dear Broke Ex-Wife: First, I am so sorry about this. It’s hard to end a marriage. It must be even harder to find out years later that he lied about finances when you trusted him enough to go through mediation instead of the often more adversarial court process to legally dissolve it. It’s a profound betrayal.
But what do you do now? According to Kelly Frawley, a matrimonial litigator with Kasowitz Benson Torres in New York, your first step is to set up a consultation with a divorce lawyer in your state so you can discover what rights you possess. Each state has a different statute of limitations on how you can handle this kind of situation, with different deadlines revolving around when the mediation was held, and when you first should have known of the deception by your ex-husband.
And that’s key. Were the accounts disclosed during the mediation and you and/or your representative missed it? Did you exchange sworn statements of assets and liabilities? If you decided to waive your right to that process because you trusted your husband, there is no deception. If, on the other hand, your now former spouse deliberately hid assets from you, you’ve possibly got a cause for action. Only a lawyer will know for sure.
A bigger point that’s probably too late for you, alas, but can help someone else in the future: Mediation does not mean completely forgoing legal advice. The mediator is there to help guide the parties to a dispute toward a settlement, but a mediator does not represent either side. There’s a lot of due diligence -- especially financial due diligence -- that goes into a divorce. The assistance of a lawyer is invaluable as you navigate that.
A lawyer can also advise you on what to say during the mediation, so you can get the best deal for yourself. In fact, if there are substantial assets at play, forgoing the advice of a lawyer is the definition of penny wise and pound foolish.
That’s not to dis mediation. Mediation is less adversarial than allowing lawyers to do battle. That’s no small consideration. But no one should endanger their long-term financial health in hopes of putting a collapsed marriage behind them. That only makes it more likely the damage of the failed relationship will continue on, ultimately hindering your ability to get on with your life.
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