More Divorcing Israeli Spouses Seek Straw Men to Conceal Holdings

It is increasingly common for wealthy individuals to conceal their wealth to avoid having to split it with the ex-wife or ex-husband.

Yaakov Birnbaum was one of several people convicted earlier this month of concealing shareholdings in a company active in Romania. But Birnbaum's reason for turning to Pacifica Holdings from 2007 to 2008 was different than that of the other defendants. His principal motivation was "his desire to hide his holdings from his wife," the Tel Aviv District Court found.

In recent years it's become increasingly common for wealthy individuals to seek out straw men to whom they can sign over their assets in order to conceal their true wealth from the spouses they are in the process of divorcing. The goal is to avoid having to split this portion of the money with the ex-wife or ex-husband.

Many wealthy people, said attorney Maya Weisman, "feel it's not fair that half should go to their husband or wife, who didn't do anything to earn it. They're also thinking about the future. And of course, there's the desire for revenge."

Assigning assets to someone else has become a popular tactic because it is "the least expensive and least complicated" method of hiding assets, added attorney Gil Dachoach.

Nevertheless, this system entails a not insignificant risk: The person to whom you sign over your assets may decide not to give them back.

That, according to Birnbaum's testimony to the Israel Securities Authority, is what happened to him. In a bid to conceal money from his wife, he transferred "a few million" to a special bank account that a friend set up for the purpose. The account was in his friend's name, but in theory, the money was his for the asking. In practice, he said, his friend refused to give it back.

This risk causes many wealthy people to prefer a more complex method of hiding assets: opening secret accounts in tax havens overseas.

Weisman, who originally worked in financial law but then switched to family law, said that often "a woman will come to me who doesn't know the first thing about how much property her husband really has." Consequently, she said, one the first things Weisman does is look into that question.

A few months ago, for instance, "a woman walked into my office, a lawyer from a respected firm, and told me she and her husband had decided to divorce amicably, by agreement." After all, the woman said, all they have is their house and a few savings, so "we don't have anything to fight about, right?"

But when Weisman started questioning her, it turned out her husband had once owned a company. The woman thought it was defunct - but with a little research, Weisman found out that it still existed, under another name. It was owned by another Israeli company, which in turn was owned by another company. After following the chain of ownership back through another few companies, Weisman discovered that the ultimate owner was a company registered in Cyprus - owned by the woman's husband.

At that point, the woman tore up the draft divorce agreement she had been ready to sign and went to court instead.

In particularly complex cases, Weisman said, she recommends that clients hire a private investigator to look for their spouses' assets.

Attorney Yael Novogrodsky said that while holdings in Israel are relatively easy to locate, private investigators are essential in locating overseas assets. "If a suspicion arises that money has been smuggled abroad, then even before getting started in court, you ask a private investigator to do the preliminary spadework," she said.

Nevertheless, family courts do have broad powers to help divorcing couples unearth their partners' hidden assets. These courts readily issue discovery orders and frequently even impound assets to enforce them. Often, they also bring in accountants to assist the discovery process.

David Goldberg, deputy chairman of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Israel, said that in such cases, he goes through all the available financial records looking for "unreasonable data" that "sets off a red light."

An example of that? "If two weeks before your examination [of the records], or close to the time of the divorce, you suddenly see an asset that has been transferred to an unrelated party at an exaggerated price," says Goldberg.

By law, each spouse's personal computer is off limits during this process. But a family computer is fair game, and courts will often issue a writ allowing lawyers or private investigators to seize a family computer and search the files for information about hidden assets.

Novogrodsky noted that the process can be extremely unpleasant for the partner suspected of concealing assets, ranging from intensive scrutiny of all his known financial records to having assets impounded or even being subject to writs restricting his activities.

"It's a mess that you're better off not getting into," she concluded. "It's better to just sign property agreements."