How to Uncover Your Assets and Financial Situation

Get your Arms Around Your Family Finances

Erin KopelmanErin Kopelman, Principal

One of the most common concerns I hear from my clients is that they do not know their family’s or spouse’s finances. This is more common than you think.  According to some statistics from last year, in 42% of relationships one partner in the relationship handles the finances, and in 46% of marriages the couples have separate bank accounts. This means almost half of married people don’t know their complete financial picture. 

If you don’t know about your family’s finances, and you’re not comfortable asking your spouse or your spouse is non-cooperative, here are eight easy self-help steps you can take to start putting the pieces together. 

  1. Make an inventory of your incomes, assets and debts – just what you know. You can start building from there.
  2. Gather copies of the pay stubs, bank account statements and credit card statements that you can. You can search shared filing cabinets, go online to shared accounts and your individual accounts, or physically to your bank.
  3. Get copies of your income tax returns. Many people don’t know what their spouse earns or where their spouse banks, but they often file joint tax returns. Joint income tax returns will show your combined incomes, and your and your spouse’s interest and dividend income, including the institutions from where it came from, so you will know where you and your spouse bank.  If you don’t have a copy of your income tax returns, you can ask your accountant, or you can request a copy of your tax transcript for several years back online from the IRS at IRs.gov.
  4. Run a credit report on yourself. This will tell you what debts are in your name.
  5. Make an appointment for you, or you and your spouse, with your financial advisor to find out what you have.
  6. Make an appointment for you and your spouse to review or create an estate plan. The first thing most estate attorneys will do is make an inventory of your assets.
  7. See if you can do a Public Records Search on your spouse. A public records search scours the internet for public records that match certain criteria of the individual you are researching and gives you a report of what it finds. There is usually a fee for this. It often shows information about the individual’s court records, social media, addresses and telephone numbers, information from credit bureaus, asset ownership, and business associations.
  8. Open your mail and save everything you get for a full three months. You can just stick it in an envelope or snap a picture of it with your phone. This isn’t helpful if your spouse gets their mail sent to them at their office or electronically. Many of my clients tell me that their spouse always gets the mail. In that case, sign up on the United States Postal Service’s website for Informed Delivery. Informed Delivery is a service that scans and sends you images of the outside of your mail. That way, even if you never tangibly have your mail, you’ll who you and your spouse are receiving mail from.

Getting your arms around your family’s finances is the first step to taking control of your financial future. 

For more information, contact Erin at 301-347-1261 or elkopelman@lerchearly.com.

The Modern Day File Cabinet: When Can You Access Your Spouse’s Electronically Stored Information?

Chris RobertsChris Roberts, Principal

Your spouse is in the shower and his or her phone lights up on the nightstand… a text message from an unknown number. You unlock the phone using the same tried and true six-digit password that has served as security for countless phones, computers, and email accounts. A string of text messages between your spouse and a lover appears. So begins a deep dive into every electronic device and email account you can get your hands on.

What’s a little snooping between spouses, you ask? Depending on what data you accessed and how, you may have violated a Federal statute punishable by incarceration for up to five years and fines of up to $10,000, per violation. That means that if you read three of your spouse’s unopened emails without his or her consent, you’re looking at a potential 15 years in the slammer and $30,000 in fines.

Don’t Access Your Spouse’s E-mails and Text Messages Without Their Consent

Electronically Stored Information, often referred to as ESI, can take many forms. One bright line distinction is whether or not the ESI is “in transit” when it is obtained. Federal law and many state statutes prohibit the interception of electronic communications without the knowledge and consent of at least one party to the communication. This means that you cannot open an unread email sitting in your spouse’s inbox unless they are aware and consent to your doing so.

This same prohibition applies to the interception of text messages, messages on social media, phone calls, or any other type of electronic communication. As a simple rule of thumb, if you have to access the information on any type of electronic device, it is probably illegal to do so.

Not only is it a crime to intercept electronic communications, generally speaking, illegally obtained evidence is not permitted to be used as evidence in court. So that smoking gun you found by rifling through your spouse’s DMs likely will do you no good in a contested hearing.

The Family Computer Is a Different Story

The same prohibitions do not apply to static data no longer in transit, which is stored on the hard drive of a desktop, laptop, or other electronic device.

Whether or not you can make use of static ESI hinges on whether you have legitimate access to the device. If data is protected by a password that only your spouse knows, in most cases you are not permitted to guess your way into the machine or otherwise hack your way into the data.

Think of a computer as a filing cabinet in the marital home. If the filling cabinet is unlocked, you have a key, or everyone in the house knows the key is somewhere in the junk drawer in your kitchen, you clearly have a right to access the files in the cabinet. If only your spouse has the key to the cabinet and it is known to be off-limits, you may not have a right access it.

Similarly, if your spouse has given you the password to a computer or other electronic device, in most cases you can access the data on the device. The same may go for a device protected by a commonly used family password. Not only can you access these devices, you may also rely on the assistance of an expert to obtain or analyze the data. This can include clandestine imaging of the device, which allows you to obtain all of the data on the device, preserving it for later use and analysis. Hard drives or other electronic storage may include financial information, family budgets, account information, estate planning, and a wealth of other information.

Other Considerations Related to ESI

If you have any reason to anticipate a dispute or court litigation with your spouse, you should never destroy data. Litigants have a duty to preserve evidence, and the destruction of evidence, also knowns as spoliation, can result in severe sanctions in a court litigation. This could include a judge dismissing your court filing and requests for relief altogether. It also may paint you as a ‘bad actor’ in the Court’s eyes, which can negatively impact your case in a number of ways.

There are many software programs with allow you to capture data from a device as it is generated, including keystroke logging software and similar programs. Keep in mind that, even though you are not actively monitoring the device, you will be held responsible for whatever the program is doing. These programs may be violating Federal or state law, which means you may be breaking those same laws.

In addition to Federal law related to the collection and use of ESI, each state has its own laws, which may differ from the Federal rules and those in other states. Consideration of efforts to collect or use ESI is heavily reliant on the specific rules and language of the applicable statutes, as well as the specific facts in each case or circumstance involving ESI.

If you have any question about the legality of your efforts to pursue ESI, you should consult with an attorney familiar with the applicable laws in your jurisdiction. In many cases, they may also suggest consultation with a forensic computer expert. Getting this advice and guidance early on may not only keep you out of trouble, but could also enable you to safely and legally capture ESI that could be invaluable later.

To Vax or Not To Vax: Co-Parents Face Tough Decision When It Comes to Vaccinating Kids

Erin KopelmanErin Kopelman, Principal

Ever since it was announced that children age 16 and older can get vaccinated against COVID-19, the phone is ringing and emails are popping from clients — many of whom I haven’t heard from in some time. The issue many of them are struggling with is that they and their co-parent disagree on whether to get their children vaccinated.

Whether your child receives a vaccination is a medical decision. Medical decisions of minor children are controlled by whomever has decision-making authority or legal custody. If you have a custody agreement or order, your agreement or order should says who has legal custody or decision making authority, and therefore who gets to determine whether your children will get a vaccination.

For those of you with joint legal custody or joint decision making authority, determining what to do may be more difficult. Joint legal custody or joint decision making authority means that you and your co-parent are supposed to discuss and make any decisions jointly. For those of you with joint legal custody or joint decision-making authority, check your custody agreement or order carefully. There may be a dispute-resolution provision requiring you to take specific steps to resolve the impasse before taking further action.

If you and your co-parent disagree about whether to vaccinate your children, take your current custody agreement or order and consult a family lawyer. There are creative solutions you perhaps haven’t explored, which have been successful in resolving legal custody decisions. In addition, they can advise you about what next options are available.

For more information, contact Erin at 301-347-1261 or elkopelman@lerchearly.com.