Financial Sleuthing

Even blissfully married women need to stay up on their joint finances.

But if your marriage is heading into an unstoppable slide, it's even more urgent that you know where the assets are -- or where they are going.

If you really want to hang onto what is rightfully yours and not be accountable for credit card charges at fancy restaurants that you've never been to or ski vacations you weren't invited on or long distance phone charges to a woman you never met, you need to do some financial sleuthing right now.

First, Get the Facts

You don't have to be Nancy Drew to do some dirt digging, and it will pay off. Six steps to take right now:

  1. Find and photocopy the last three to five years of joint tax returns you put your signature on. (You can call the Internal Revenue Service at 800-829-3676, and ask them to send Form 4506; there is a charge of $23 per return).
  2. Poke your head into any safe deposit boxes you have in both of your names and record the contents.
  3. Make copies of the past year's worth of bank statements, brokerage accounts and other investments.
  4. Scan with a close eye all credit card statements from the last year.
  5. Review all insurance documents -- homeowners, auto, life and personal property.
  6. Call a major credit bureau and ask for a copy of your credit report: Experian, 800-682-7654; Equifax, 800-685-1111; Trans Union, 800-888 4213.

Advanced Sleuthing . . .

Next, you'll want to dig a little deeper beneath the surface, advises Jacalyn F. Barnett, a matrimonial lawyer in New York City. It's time for the tougher forensic work. You should hire a lawyer who specializes in matrimonial law.

The per-hour consultation might run you anywhere from $150 to $350. The best way to find someone you are comfortable with is through word of mouth. You might even ask a court reporter. The key is to find someone you trust and to whom you have easy access. You can also call the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers at 312-263-6477.

You almost have to view this process as the liquidation of a business, Barnett says. You've got to be steely about getting the information you need to turn your life around.

Things to look for:

  • Check bank statements for any change in ATM machine use. Is your husband now using an ATM near his office instead of home, or taking out more cash then he used to?
  • Check his cell phone records if you can to see whether there is a frequency of certain numbers or a pattern of short calls.
  • See whether he has changed any joint accounts to individual ones, or opened new individual ones.

Remember that knowledge really is power. It will be worth your time to do some detective work, even if it's not as glamorous as Miss Drew made it out to be.

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