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Lisa Arends Headshot

It's Not Fraud If You're Married

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"It's not fraud if you're married," the policeman said apologetically. As I registered his words, the enormity of what I was facing became clear.

My ex-husband and I first established a household together in our late teens. We came together with nothing. We opened up joint accounts and scrupulously managed every dime that came in from our low paying jobs. In those early years, we did all of the finances together, talking through options and discussing goals. Our income ebbed and flowed but as I completed college and he gained skill and notoriety, our salaries climbed to comfortable levels in our twenties. We also grew to trust each other. We had similar patterns in spending and saving and compatible beliefs about money. As his work picked up and his hours grew longer, I took over the responsibility for managing the household finances. Years later, when I started graduate school on top of my full time job and he began working from home, he became what we jokingly called The Minister of Finance. I only found out after he left me that he took advantage of this role and my trust; the minister was a marital embezzler.

As we reached our early thirties, I thought we were in great shape. Our income was more than enough to pay our bills, we had finally saved for the deck we had always dreamed of, and our retirement accounts were growing. It turned out, however, that the marital accounts were being carefully and deliberately drained from the inside. I discovered that he had been withdrawing large sums of money for years while manipulating the accounts to keep his actions hidden. The numbers I had been told and even some of the documents I had been shown were fakes. His computer and cell phone, which I always had access to, were decoys meant to keep me unsuspecting and unaware that there was anything hidden behind the checkbook. Forgeries were carried out in the supposed sanctuary of the marital home.

The day after he left, I wormed my way into the password-protected accounts. My first thought was that I had nothing, as the checking and savings accounts were dry. I then realized that I had less than nothing when I saw the debt accumulated and carefully squirreled away. I looked around at the house that he abandoned along with me, the house that I could not afford to live in on my own (not that I wanted to). While I was navigating the serpentine accounts and trying to trace the movement of the funds, a knock on the door brought an additional surprise: a certified letter from the IRS demanding money from an audit. An audit I knew nothing about.

It became clear that my ex-husband had been deceptively spending large amounts of money and that his financial house of cards was in the process of crashing down. He jumped out of his life just as the fiscal conflagration occurred, leaving me alone in the fire. At first, I was hopeful that I could find protection through the courts. After all, he had lied, forged, and then disappeared. This had to be fraud. But it's not fraud if you're married.

I was left with empty accounts. Debts I have to pay that were used to fund his other life. He asked for and received the house in the divorce, yet failed to refinance and remove my name or make the payments. I was in a catch-22; I owed money on a house that was not legally mine to occupy or sell. He neglected to pay the court costs, insurance payments and taxes that were ordered in the decree. I learned that civil courts are ill-prepared to deal with a criminal and that the law-abiding spouse gets saddled with the mess. Why is it that Bernie Madoff gets sentenced to 150 years in prison while my husband simply gets a non-enforceable piece of paper that asks him to pay back the misappropriated funds? Oh, that's right: it's not fraud if you're married.

The financial mess is a bungee cord that tethers me to the pain of the divorce. It's difficult to move forward when I am still literally paying for the past. It's even harder emotionally when I let myself wallow in the anger and frustration at the unfairness of it all. I work every day to wrap this frustration in gratitude. I am thankful to the IRS, who granted me innocent spouse relief, absolving me of the back taxes incurred through his lies. I have an education and a career that allows me to whittle away at the debts. My friends provided a home for me when I couldn't afford one and my family seeded my accounts until my paychecks could accrue. I am especially grateful for the new life I have now, with eyes wide open and auto pilot turned off.

I am also thankful for the lessons I have learned. I've come to realize that there is a difference between trust and complacency. I seek evidence to back up claims and I don't take someone's word quite so easily anymore. I have put fraud alert on my life. Additionally, I learned how strong I can be. I had two fears in life: losing my husband and losing my financial security. Three years ago, I faced them both and lived to tell the tale. I'm just looking forward to the day when I am no longer paying for those lessons.