A wife or husband in the process of a divorce will engage a forensic accountant, broadly speaking, to find all of the marriage’s assets and liabilities and to organize these into a clear, accurate presentation. Thus, the decision on whether to hire a forensic accountant is essentially based on common sense.
Some of the reasons that tend to make hiring a forensic accountant advisable are:
- suspicion that the opposing spouse is hiding assets and/or overstating liabilities,
- the opposing spouse owns a business or is self-employed,
- the marriage has a variety of assets and liabilities, for example, stocks and bonds, options contracts, mutual funds, life insurance policies, college savings accounts, retirement accounts, and other forms of investment and sources of revenue; also mortgages, credit card debt, business travel and lodging, college loans, automobile leases or loans, and other secured and unsecured borrowing,
- the opposing spouse has hired a forensic accountant; although forensic accountants are ethically required to be objective reporters, not advocates for the person who hires them, ethically valid differences of opinion might be possible in a specific case, and though hopefully extremely rare, unethical accounting is not impossible.
On the other hand, a forensic accountant tends to be less necessary in divorces where:
- income is limited to declared pay from employers,
- assets are limited to a checking account, a savings account, one or two automobiles, household items, and retirement through Social Security,
- debts are limited to credit card accounts and automobile leases or loans,
- expenses are limited to housing, food, the above debts, some entertainment and recreation, and perhaps vacations.
Assessing where the marital assets and liabilities stand between minimal and maximal complexity informs the decision on whether to engage a forensic accountant.
What is a certified forensic accountant?
A certified forensic accountant is a certified public accountant (CPA) who, after becoming a CPA, has further education and training, and passes an additional rigorous examination. A number of accounting organizations award advanced forensic certifications. One of the most prominent organizations, The American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) issues the Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF) certification to CPAs who successfully complete all of AICPA’s qualifying criteria. Other accounting organization have other names for their forensic accounting certification.
Some forensic accountants specialize, whether wholly or partly, in divorce matters. Others focus on criminal cases or other areas and might not work with divorces at all.
The training and expertise of those who deal with divorce cases includes these areas:
- methods and practices for finding hidden assets and liabilities and discovering fraud,
- state and federal law concerning divorce and the related asset and liability distributions,
- trial strategy, practice, and procedure — this knowledge enables the forensic accountant to work proficiently with the attorney from the initiation of a case through discovery, settlement negotiation, motions, trial, and appeal,
- how to organize financial matters and also create visual aids in preparation for providing a clear and comprehensive presentation, that is readily understandable to the general public, in discovery, including depositions, and at trial,
- how to testify in direct examination and cross-examination.
Important differences between attorneys and forensic accountants:
A forensic accountant can testify and, accordingly, can put evidence into the record of a divorce proceeding. Therefore, this is a significant part of the distinction between an attorney and a forensic accountant. An attorney representing a spouse in a divorce case cannot testify in that case. Further, while trial rules generally do not allow hearsay evidence, there are some exceptions for expert witnesses. Therefore, because forensic accountants are expert witnesses, they can introduce into evidence some facts that are hearsay. This can be crucial because a lot of material in financial records is hearsay.
Consultant or witness?
A spouse in a divorce case can hire a forensic accountant as a consultant or a witness. A consultant investigates and reports the results of the investigation. A witness does that and also testifies. Generally speaking (there could be exceptions), the work of a consultant can remain confidential, while the work of a witness cannot. A witness must be disclosed on the list of witnesses and is also subject to discovery procedures by the opposing side. It is considered best to decide the scope of a forensic accountant’s engagement at the outset, not to hire a consultant and later change the status to witness. This is because judges tend to disapprove of the latter tactic.
Overall, soon after a spouse hires an attorney in a divorce matter, it is advisable to discuss with the attorney all of the assets and liabilities that the spouse knows of, and to decide whether to engage a forensic accountant.
The Forensic Accounting Deskbook: A Practical Guide to Financial Investigation and Analysis for Family Lawyers
Miles Mason, Sr., JD, CPA
ABA Section of Family Law
Most of this article stems from info in this book.
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CPA Journal, November 2017
A Value-Adding Skill for the CPA
Accessed: April 5, 2019
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Forensic CPA Society
Accessed: April 5, 2019
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Expert Witness Hearsay: What is Admissible?
by Dani Alexis Ryskamp, April 2, 2019
accessed April 22, 2019