Hiding assets the Bitcoin way

Some partners will go to great lengths to reduce or eliminate their financial obligations after the end of a marriage or cohabitation. Their method? Converting cash to Bitcoins.

In January 2010, the Ontario court of appeal in a 3-0 decision, upheld a six-month jail sentence for a defendant who hid assets in a divorce case.

 

“The court said [Lloyd Wayne Bowman of Kitchener, Ont.] attempted to keep his ex-wife in the dark as he methodically drained $50,000 from his RRSPs in an effort to reduce his spousal support obligations,” the Globe and Mail reported. When he refused a chance to pay what he owed, the jail sentence was imposed.

 

“Given the lengthy history of the appellant’s concerted attempts to hide his assets from the respondent — and the [trial] judge’s clear finding that the appellant’s contempt was ‘blatant’ and designed to ensure that the RRSPs were not available for spousal support — we cannot say that this component of the sentence was unduly harsh,” said Justice Michael Moldaver.

 

Bowman and his ex-wife, Sharon Bowman, had been married 23 years when they separated in late 2003. Two years later, they consented to an order calling for Bowman to pay Sharon $2,500 a month. Not long after, he applied to have the amount reduced, claiming his income had dropped to zero.

 

“Madam Justice Cheryl Lafrenière of the Ontario Superior Court found this reduction was a direct result of Mr. Bowman transferring shares of his company to his son,” the Globe said. “In her ruling, Judge Lafrenière also rejected Mr. Bowman’s claim that he needed the $50,000 from his RRSPs for routine, reasonable living expenses.”

 

The tale of Bowman vs. Bowman, which contained many typical elements of an acrimonious divorce, including that of a spouse providing false information about his financial worth, was unusual in one detail: one of the parties ended up in jail.

 

It is by no means uncommon for one spouse to resist paying an assessed settlement or to downplay or hide assets to keep them from the other spouse.

 

Although many partners act responsibly and fairly in the distribution of assets following the end of a marriage or cohabitation, some do not, and will go to many lengths to reduce or eliminate their financial obligations, especially by hiding assets in advance of an anticipated breakup.

 

In the past few years, the potential for success in this endeavour was thrown a curveball when articles appeared either extolling or warning about a new way to hide money from an ex-partner.

 

What is the method? Converting cash to Bitcoins, the cryptocurrency that is often described as almost impossible to trace.

 

An article by New York divorce lawyer David Centeno in the Huffington Post, “Hiding Assets with Bitcoin in Divorce,” cautioned against the practice while explaining a little about a form of currency that is still a bit of an unknown to many people.

 

“Bitcoin has been defined by its mysterious inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, as ‘a Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,’ ” Centeno wrote. “It is known as a cryptocurrency because users can pseudonymously transfer money directly to one another, peer to peer, without the need for a middle man like a Western Union, a bank or even a governmental authority.”

 

 

In May 2016, a website called cointelegraph.com, which advertises itself as the source of “the hottest Bitcoin news daily,” published an article titled “With Bitcoin, Hiding Assets in Divorce Is Risky, But It Pays.”

 

Bitcoin, it noted, “would seem to provide the best of both worlds if you want to hide assets in a divorce, but firstly, it goes without saying that you must ensure Bitcoin is legal in your country before you start investigating. It’s much easier to hold anonymously — all you need is the private key written in a hidden place, say the inner sole of your shoe, and you’re set.”

 

Both governments and the legal system, it said, are “lagging behind terribly when it comes to an understanding of cryptocurrencies, so it would likely not even cross a solicitor’s or judge’s mind to consider looking for crypto-assets. If you buy your Bitcoin in-person in cash, there would be no record or receipt that could tie you to the transaction, so following a paper trail would be impossible. Furthermore, liquidity after the divorce proceedings would be far more simple than trying to sell an expensive piece of art or furniture.”

 

The writer, Charlie McCombie, a UK-based author and editor for the website, argued that even if a person’s crypto-assets were discovered, “a solicitor would have a very hard time tying you to the address, provided you showed due diligence; and although I couldn’t find a source on this, given that in most countries and in most US states, since Bitcoin’s value isn’t technically recognized, you could argue the case that they don’t have any value. The only obvious downside to hiding assets through Bitcoin is the well-known volatility of its price. You could potentially lose huge sums if the market wasn’t in your favour, but on the other hand, you could get lucky, and even make a profit.”

 

Two years earlier, Robert Pagliarini, the president of California-based Pacifica Wealth Advisors and the author of The Six-Day Financial Makeover: Transform Your Financial Life in Less Than a Week, posted an article on AOL.com that claimed “the newest high-tech way to hide assets in a divorce is by using Bitcoin, a digital currency that doesn’t depend on banks or governments, and allows its holders to remain anonymous. I haven’t seen people using Bitcoins to conceal assets yet in my divorce financial planning practice, but I fear I will soon.”

 

But what if McCombie’s warning that Bitcoins could lose their value came true? Based on a Reuters article on BNN in November 2017, the reality might just be the opposite.

 

“Digital currency bitcoin rocketed above US$7,000 for the first time ever on [November 2], after a more than sevenfold increase in its value

since the start of the year,” it reported. “Bitcoin has seen eye-watering gains in recent months and has more than doubled in value in the past seven weeks alone. It hit as high as US$7,066.44 on the Luxembourg-based Bitstamp exchange [that day]. The latest rally was driven by news earlier this week that the world’s largest derivatives exchange operator CME Group is to launch Bitcoin futures.

 

“The price move takes Bitcoin’s aggregate value, or ‘market cap’ — its price multiplied by the number of Bitcoins released into circulation — to more than US$117 billion, according to industry website Coinmarketcap. The aggregate value of all cryptocurrencies is now at a record high of more than US$190 billion, the website said.”

 

For those raised on trusting traditional currency systems, the concept of a digital currency must seem like science fiction. But when Forbes magazine wrote about it in a May 2017 article — “Bitcoin is Bigger Than Ever, and Here’s Why That Matters” — it seemed as though the cryptocurrency had achieved a certain credibility in the financial world. (It should be noted there are many other cryptocurrencies. Wikipedia says that as of July 2017 the number was more than “900 and growing.”)

 

A few months later, Forbes reported on comments made by Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, who had recently labelled Bitcoin as a “fraud,” likening it to the 17th-century tulip-bulb mania and adding that he would fire any employee caught trading it. “But on October 2 [2017], the Wall Street Journal reported that rival Goldman Sachs is considering trading in cryptocurrencies, potentially the first Wall Street firm to do so.”

 

Divorce lawyers and forensic investigators need to be aware that this high-tech option could possibly be employed by a spouse trying to hide assets. But even if this is the case, they should not assume the perpetrator can’t be caught.

 

Centeno described Bitcoin as being pseudonymous “because although users are assigned a string of numbers as a Bitcoin wallet address where they store their Bitcoins, with some forensic work these addresses can be associated with the users’ actual identity and therefore tracked.”

 

To protect yourself from being “Bitcoined in divorce,” Pagliarini wrote on AOL.com, you have to follow the money trail. “Conversions of ‘real’ assets into digital Bitcoin would leave clues. There would be transfers from bank accounts you could track. Once the transfers were made, however, it would be difficult — especially if the Bitcoins were held outside of the United States — to prove ownership. Your first step would be to show that marital property was converted into Bitcoins and hope a court could compel your spouse to reveal their true value.

 

“Things become more difficult if your spouse has a business, and was compensated in Bitcoins without any invoice. In that case, there would be no record of the transaction — either on a profit and loss report from your husband’s company or in bank records. To uncover this will take effort and craftiness.”

 

It’s likely that Sharon Bowman is relieved that her ex-husband either didn’t know about Bitcoins or chose another method to try to convince the courts he didn’t have the assets she claimed he possessed. If he had, he might not have ended up in jail. As it is, it seems he probably bit off more than he could chew.