What Are Divorce Documents?
In the course of a typical divorce, there’s a myriad of paperwork exchanging hands between attorneys and often shared with the court.
When most people hear the term “divorce documents,” they think of the documents required to open and complete the case, including a divorce petition (complaint), which is filed with the court to initiate the process, and the final judgment granting the divorce. But the term encompasses far more than that.
When a spouse is served with (receives) the divorce petition, that person will file a written response or answer. Once this happens, the spouses will exchange preliminary financial disclosures, which provide basic information about income, expenses, assets, and debts. However, many spouses spend little time or effort filling these forms out, which will create a gaps in information. In order to achieve a truly fair settlement in a divorce, each spouse needs to have full and fair disclosure of finances and property.
If you believe that your spouse doesn't have all of the required information or that your spouse is hiding information about assets from you, you or your attorney can use a process called “divorce discovery." Through formal discovery, attorneys can gather relevant information by sending the spouses and third parties written requests for documents, written questions (interrogatories) and/or requests for oral testimony (deposition subpoenas).
For example, you can ask your spouse to produce:
- documents related to income, expenses, debts, and assets, such as pay stubs, W-2s, tax returns, credit card statements, house appraisals, loan documents, and pension valuations
- documents or information about your child (report cards, counselor's notes, and medical information), and
- all documents showing any claimed loans or investments your spouse may have made during the marriage.
When your spouse answers these questions for information, or claims to not have certain requested documents, he or she is often doing so under penalty of perjury, because discovery requests must be signed, and during a deposition, the witness is under oath.
Written Motions and Affidavits
If there’s a dispute about certain issues during the divorce, such as temporary alimony, child support, or a parenting time schedule, attorneys will file written “motions” with the court, requesting court intervention. These motions, and responses to them, are almost invariably accompanied by supporting written statements (called declarations or affidavits) from the spouses. These affidavits are signed under oath.
Paperwork that requires your signature has one thing in common—when you sign these papers under oath, you are representing to the court that everything stated in them is true to the best of your knowledge and belief.
The Consequences of Lying
The phrase “to the best of your knowledge and belief” is included in court documents because courts realize that honest mistakes are bound to happen. If it appears that one spouse made an inaccurate statement unintentionally, a judge isn't likely to hold it against that spouse. That’s not to say it won’t impact the divorce, especially if the inaccuracy relates to a significant issue. But the court normally won’t penalize the spouse personally. If, however, the representation made is knowingly false—a judge can sanction (punish) the spouse with monetary fines or worse.
You Could Be Guilty of Contempt of Court
Lying in a court document is basically lying under oath. If you do it, you’ve perjured yourself. How a court chooses to deal with it depends on the particular judge and, frequently, how egregious the lie is.
Ethical considerations aside, if it’s the first time you’ve done it, and the deception is relatively minor, there’s a possibility a judge will just give you a warning. But the fact is your actions could trigger a finding that you’re in contempt of court. This can carry the imposition of a fine, or a stint in jail. You really don’t want to put yourself in a position where you’re banking on your judge being in a forgiving mood if it comes out that you lied.
You May Negatively Influence a Judge’s Thinking
Judges strive for impartiality when presiding over cases, but if you’re caught in a lie, it’s conceivable—if not likely—that a judge will view anything you say in the future with a degree of suspicion. Judges may give no indication that this is how they’re thinking. But because the chance exists, you’ve put yourself in a position where you’re virtually forced to go above and beyond what you’d normally need to do to regain credibility. You don’t need that additional burden.
If you cross the line, it doesn’t guarantee a judge will ultimately rule against you on the issues in the divorce. But, as a practical matter, it makes no sense to run the risk of tilting the scales in your spouse’s favor.
You Could Delay the Divorce—Costing You Time and Money
In all likelihood, much of what happened in your divorce up to the time your lie came to light was predicated on the assumption you were telling the truth. The nature of the deception could impact issues such as temporary custody, temporary alimony and child support, or the distribution of some assets.
For example, if you lied about your income, that would throw off a court’s calculations of child support and alimony. The ramifications of this, especially if you’re far along in your case, could be significant. Resolved issues might now need to be reopened. This would likely mean additional discovery. Motions for temporary relief could have to be refiled, so the court can consider the newly-found information. All this adds up to more time and higher legal fees. And because your lie caused this situation, don’t be surprised if the court requires you to pay the added legal fees your spouse incurred.
A court can also order you to transfer a portion of the asset you hid to your spouse. In California, for example, if a court discovers that you fraudulently lied about an asset or other property by failing to disclose it in your divorce documents, a judge can award your spouse 50-100 percent of the value of the asset.
Because divorce can be so emotionally charged, it helps to have someone on your side who can keep you focused and maintain an objectivity that may at times elude you. To help you achieve that, consider speaking to an experienced divorce attorney in your area.