My recent post, It's Not Fraud if You're Married generated some insightful comments and interesting questions. Many people questioned how my ex could commit marital fraud (and actually bigamy as well) and walk away from criminal consequences. It was recommended that I find him, sue him, or publicize his identity and let the public lead a modern day witch hunt. Nice fantasies, but the reality is different.
I was hit with the knowledge of the demise of a (what seemed to be solid) union, and affair on his part, and the financial mess all within a 24 hour period. I literally lost everything the moment I received the text he used to end the marriage. I was utterly lost and confused. I immediately opened up a checking account in my name and moved my direct deposit. I had no attorney on retainer and had to select representation by the "feel" of the website and the rates. I didn't know who or what to trust and had to make the best decisions possible with the information and limited resources I had at the time. And, to make matters worse, I felt immense time pressure to finalize the divorce so that I would be protected from any other financial decisions he made.
From the outside looking in, I'm sure the route looks clear: take him for all he's got. After all, I literally had a file box of evidence. But in the real world? That's not how things work. For several months, I navigated two different court proceedings: the criminal trial he faced for bigamy that filed by the state in which the illegal marriage occurred and the civil divorce in Georgia. I started out with faith in the system. That confidence faded as time went on.
In the criminal case, they ended up giving him a diversion, a special pronouncement for first time offenders of non-violent crimes. He was ordered to complete certain terms within a one year period or he would be automatically convicted of the felony. He failed to complete the terms of the diversion and there is now a warrant out for his arrest (which I did not know until I appeared on The Jeff Probst Show this past fall). The reality is that the warrant does not mean much. He is a low-priority criminal in an overworked and under-budgeted system. He may never face that charge.
The civil case was more hands-on and more frustrating. I only had contact with him through two layers of attorneys and he failed to cooperate with even the most simple of requests. The judge ordered mediation but we could not follow through because he failed to produce the required documentation. He repeatedly lied to his attorney, neglecting to tell him he was in Uganda shortly before the court date and claiming ownership of a childhood account established for me by my grandmother (the funds from which were used to make the down payment on our house).
In court, the judge immediately saw through his lies and she ruled the best she could within the boundaries of the law in Georgia. On paper, I did okay. It turns out, however, that the paper is worthless. When he failed to make payments to me (for court costs, attorney fees, insurance, and taxes), refinance the house in his name only or make mortgage payments on the house, I contacted my attorney. I still had faith in the black and white of the decree.
Her words were disheartening. I could file another civil motion against him. But all that would accomplish was another piece of paper stating that he should pay and another several thousand dollars out of my paltry accounts to pay for the court proceedings. I made the very difficult choice to let it be. I had already spent tens of thousands of dollars simply to be free from him. I was starting to heal emotionally and wanted to move forward with my new life. I stopped following the results of the diversion and I gave up trying to keep track of his whereabouts. His life was no longer part of mine.
Although the laws vary from state to state, one thing is abundantly clear -- it is difficult to tease out financial responsibility from a collapsing partnership. I feel very strongly that the way my case was handled was not fair, but yet I have no idea how to create a system that is always fair. Sometimes a 50-50 split is equitable. Sometimes not. Separate accounts do not guarantee a clean separation as most states view assets and debts as jointly held, regardless of the name that appears on the statement. I don't know how to fix it, but I do know one thing. If something is considered fraudulent outside of a marriage (for example, in a business partnership), then it should be considered fraud within the context of marriage as well.
I am not (nor do I want to be) his judge or jury. I do not want to live my life like Inigo Montoya from "The Princess Bride", spending my days pursuing vengeance upon the one who wronged me. Although I would get a chuckle out of repeating, "Hello. My name is Lisa Arends. You killed my credit. Prepare to die." However, as much fun as that would be, I instead choose to live my life and I'll let him hang himself.
Visit my blog, Lessons From the End of a Marriage to read my answers to some of the other questions brought up in the discussion.