There is a great divorce story movie that I love called “War of the Roses”. It’s about a couple who have the supposed perfect family life and over the years begin to loathe each other, with the inevitable divorce finale. The film commences with a lawyer friend of the couple recounting their story as a tale of caution to another who is contemplating divorce. The lawyer tells this person that if a man who makes $450 per hour (circa 1990) wants to tell him something for free, then he should listen.

The couple start out young and beautiful; the husband working his way up the corporate ladder; the wife caring for their children, refurbishing a run down older style home into a palace to be proud of and commencing a catering business. Over the years the couple accumulate a staggering array of worldly finery; crystal ware, porcelain figurines, antique furniture, Persian carpets, chandeliers; you name the luxury brand and they have it. As they strive for and reach their goals and desires they begin to grow apart and become dissatisfied. They wonder what is next, what aim or ambition will give them the happiness they seek. During this process of reaching their milestones they begin to become dissatisfied with themselves as partners and as a married couple. The cracks start to appear and they end up resenting and dismissing each other.

Surprisingly, the story of the Roses is not too dissimilar from the wars experienced in some contemporary divorces. There’s lots of defined strategies on getting on the other party’s nerves, there’s pre-determined moves to counter another’s game play and there’s plenty of fighting over assets. The object for both was to WIN! The cost of the fight didn’t matter, it was who won that mattered. As the lawyer said “There are no winners, only degrees of losing” but this fell on deaf ears.

What I found so extraordinary was the destruction of assets that meant so much to the both of them. They were so determined to hurt the other that they were prepared to hurt themselves in the process by denying themselves the joy these assets brought to them both. They enjoyed the shock, torment and dismay the actions of their destruction wrought on the other. They hurtled precious objects against walls, took a crow bar to items that couldn’t be lifted and thrown, they drove their cars over items positions outside the home, they loathed each others pets and treated them badly and embarrassed each other in front of valued colleagues or clients.

The reason for their divorce was that one wanted out of the marriage whilst the other wanted to continue on. Neither had had an affair but one had got tired of the other and wanted to explore a new life without them. When divorces are not mutual they can become very mean and parties may use the hurt they feel to justify the destruction of much loved assets. As an accountant I don’t understand this type of destruction. All assets must be accounted for in a financial statement prepared by parties in a divorce, listing all assets and liabilities held by them. This means that the other party who doesn’t retain the asset must be compensated for part of the value of those assets taken or kept by the other party. Destroying assets purely means a party is cutting off their nose to spite their own face. The destruction will only give a temporary feeling of satisfaction, whereas being paid out for them means there are funds available to purchase something that may bring even greater joy in the long run. The Dali Lama said “Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck”. So even if you wanted to keep an asset but lost it in the property negotiations to your ex spouse, this may turn out to be a better thing than you realise. Only hindsight will reveal what the “…wonderful stroke of luck” is.

Emotional assets are those that may not be valued greatly but are still of great value to someone. These could be anything from a toy bear a grandfather had as a child to his war medals - assets that may not have sufficient monetary value but are steeped in family history and memories. Destroying these types of assets only hardens the heart of the person who has suffered the loss. They would feel the loss of these assets far more than those assets that can be replaced by purchasing another. It may make them seek retribution on something you love dearly and cannot live without, and this will only perpetuate the divorce war raging in the family.

In my mind there are three types of assets in a divorce; those that are valued by one or both parties, emotional assets and those items that you might think are better placed out on the nature strip during hard rubbish week. All of these assets carry weight in terms of the negotiation clout they represent. In terms of emotional assets and those that look like they are best suited for the hard rubbish pile; just because a dollar value cannot be placed on something, does not mean it isn’t worth something to someone.

Negotiation is a game of poker, you need to work out what the other party values and what they are prepared to give up or pay to get what they want.

Elizabeth Camillo is the principal of her own firm specialising in forensic accounting in family law. Her role in a divorce is to search for any hidden money or stashed assets purchased with family money, to review the performance and value a family business, and other indications of financial deceit in a marriage.
Prior to commencing her own practice, Elizabeth investigated the management of client monies by lawyers in the state of Victoria. She is a member of CPA Australia, has a Masters in Professional Accounting and is an accredited trainer. Elizabeth is a regular presenter and trainer at Leo Cussen Centre for Law and the Real Estate Institute of Victoria.
She is the author of the soon to be published book, “Where’s the Money, Honey?: Finding the Hidden Assets in your Divorce”.