Divorce–No Substitute for a Good Asset Protection Plan

An Associated Press release on November 17, 2009 reported that the U.S. government could collect billions of dollars in court-ordered restitution under a new divorce decree between imprisoned former Cendant corp chairman Walter Forbes and his wife of 27 years. This is a story about a very bad asset protection planning strategy which, not surprisingly, failed in its entirety.

What Walter apparently attempted to do, in order to avoid turning over his assets to the government pursuant to the restitution order, was to transfer his assets to his wife using the pretext of a divorce settlement. He obviously knew that he could not simply give his wife the assets because such a conveyance would undoubtedly be a classic fraudulent transfer and easily overcome by his creditors…including the U.S. government in its role as a creditor due to its right to restitution. So Walter and his wife conjured up the divorce scenario as a ruse to get the assets to her as part of a property settlement.

What the article left out but what must have been implicit in the court’s decision was a recognition that the property settlement was a subterfuge to mask a fraudulent transfer. The article noted that Walter sold the family’s nearly $6million, 11,000 square foot Connecticut mansion to his wife for $10. According to the ruling, Caren Forbes must reconvey the mansion to her ex-husband thereby permitting his creditors to seize it. There was also the matter of the 14 acre chalet-style house in Rhode Island that is likewise going back to Walter.

The moral of this story, although there are clearly no morals to be found, is that there is no substitute for proactive and disciplined asset protection planning. While this case may generate more attention due to the high profile nature of the parties, and that it involved a convicted felon who will be imprisoned for up to 12 1/2 years, it is nonetheless useful to remind even the lawbiding among us that asset protection planning is a vital and important element of any financial and estate planning process.