In my initial meeting with clients, at some point I usually tell them that court is not like they see on TV. There are no Perry Mason moments where someone stands up and says "I did it." Since I do family law, "I did it" usually means adultery and no one admits to that. The other spouse is not going to break on the stand and apologize for everything. It just doesn’t happen. Until it does. Sometimes lightning strikes three times.
I recently had a divorce trial. The only issues were division of property and alimony for my client. Should have been fairly simple and straightforward as neither one had a whole lot. My client (the wife) was completely unable to work due to disability, making a claim for alimony a pretty good one. The husband was not working so I had to find money somewhere.
The property issue was the fun one. I found out about a property that the husband purchased in Baltimore City as an "investment. The husband had been claiming throughout the process that he was scammed and his name wasn’t on even on the Deed. Which was true at one point. How I found out about the property was that he got sued by the seller for not registering the Deed. Court cases are public record, in this case including the address of the property. End result was that the Court ordered that the Deed be registered in his name. I had a copy of the Deed because – again – public record means just that – publicly accessible by anyone.
At trial, it all came together. At trial the guy still tried to deny he owned the property while under oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I, of course, handed him the Deed and said "Sir can you identify this document?" He said "I don’t know what this is; I’ve never seen it before in my life." "Sir isn’t this a deed of trust for the property located at [x address] in Baltimore?" ?" "Yes." "That is your name on the first page, correct?" "Yes. "This is your signature on this page of the document, correct." "Yes." (Perry Mason Moment #1).
He tried to explain it away that he had no never seen this document and had no memory of signing it. The Judge didn’t let him get away with it. The Judge just confirmed one more time that was his name on the front and his signature.
Earlier I had asked him when he and his wife separated. Still with the Deed in front of him, I asked him what the date of purchase was. He read it off. He had purchased the property six months before he left his wife. (Perry Mason Moment #2). He never discussed the purchase with her. I trusted the Judge to make the connection between the two dates without asking the obvious.
But I wasn’t done with the Deed yet. I had one more thing to prove with it. "Sir why does this Deed list you as unmarried?" "I don’t know." (Perry Mason #3) When he was still living with his wife, he buys a property in another city and lists himself as unmarried. It was clear he was setting himself up nicely to take off and leave her high and dry.
Three moments, one document. All proved he lied and was hiding potential assets. He wanted those assets for himself, and did not want to share as the law allowed. Of course, he was so distracted protecting the asset, he missed what I was doing about the alimony. There is this little thing called "voluntary impoverishment" where a person claims not to be working to avoid paying alimony (or child support if appropriate). I established he could work, but was not. He claimed to be looking for work, but just wasn’t finding it. Coupled with his hiding assets, this was not believable. He was found to be able to work and had to pay alimony each and every month until someone dies or my client remarries.
The judge was brutal in his ruling. He found that the husband had purchased the property to generate an income stream that would be unknown to his wife thereby keeping her from making a claim on it. Except she did. His continued lies only made it worse than if he had just admitted he bought property and it was worthless so no point arguing over it. Public records have a way of becoming public. Nothing stays hidden for long. . This cost him double in this case. His lies made it more likely he would be found voluntary impoverished on the alimony issue. Honesty is the best policy – especially in court. Otherwise, Perry Mason may make a cameo in your courtroom.
Biography: Elizabeth Pugliese practices family law in Montgomery County, Maryland. She has been licensed since 2008 and is a graduate of the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law. More information can be found at http://www.ep-lawyer.com
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