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Hiding Assets in Divorce Proceeding Backfires

To some extent, the court process depends on the integrity of the people involved, including the parties to a lawsuit, as well as their lawyers. Of course, some people do lie. The process allows for pre-trial document disclosure and examinations under oath. At a trial, there are usually several witnesses, and lawyers have the opportunity to question opposing parties as well as all of the witnesses. After a full trial, the judge then weighs the evidence, considering such things as the internal consistency of a witness’s own evidence, as well as each witness’s evidence when weighed against the evidence of others. Finally, is the evidence overall believable, or, to use the language of the courts, does it meet the preponderance of probabilities? My sense is that judges do quite a good job in weeding out fabrications, but they cannot see into the hearts and minds of those who appear before them.

The majority of the cases settle before trial, without the benefit of a judge assessing credibility. It must be tempting for some in a bitter dispute to lie, or in the case of a divorce, to hide assets. Doing so may backfire.

In divorce proceedings, Rosa Donna Este was required to disclose her assets to her former husband. She disclosed some, but apparently not all. She and her former husband settled the proceedings; their assets were divided in accordance with a consent order, and the Court granted the divorce.

Subsequently, after a falling out with her mother, Mina Esteghamat-Ardakan, and her brother, Francis Amir Este, Ms. Este sued them alleging that they held millions of dollars worth of assets in trust for her. She alleged that they held the assets belonging to her to avoid creditors, and in particular, the claim by her former husband.

According to Ms. Este’s own allegations, in her Further Amended Notice of Civil Claim,

11C. From approximately 1990 to late 2014, the Plaintiff, Mina and Francis regularly engaged in discussions and planning regarding the manner in which properties that they owned or proposed to acquire should be held, including the name or names in which title should be held and trust arrangements or other agreements amongst themselves that should be made related to them. The primary objectives which the Plaintiff, Mina and Francis sought to advance through those discussions and planning measures included maximizing the extent to which the capital gains exemption available for gains realized on the sale properties claimed as their principal residences could be claimed, and protecting those properties from potential claims that their present or potential future spouses, romantic partners or creditors might make against them.

Her claim set out that,

(a) From approximately late-May of 2013 through to October of 2013, Mina, with Francis’ participation and assistance, counseled and encouraged the Plaintiff to propound a false and concocted story, devised by Mina, that Mina was the true owner of assets that were then owned by the Plaintiff in defending a family law action that the Plaintiff’s (then) husband had commenced against her in May of 2013 (“Family Law Action”).

Other particulars of her claim include signing “fake back-dated trust declarations,” adding her mother as an account holder, and then deleting her own name, and giving false evidence.

After four weeks of trial, Ms. Este’s mother and brother brought an application to dismiss her claim on the basis that there was no evidence to support her claim, and that her claims were an abuse of the court’s process.

Mr. Justice Funt, in Este v. Esteghamat-Ardakani, 2017 BCSC 878, set out the main issue before him:

[1] Is it an abuse of process for a plaintiff to claim ownership of Blackacre that the defendant claims to own when that plaintiff, in recent divorce proceedings, swore falsely and pleaded not to own Blackacre, thereby deceiving then spouse, counsel, and the Court? Does it matter that the defendant knew of the deception and participated by preparing false documents? These questions are at issue before the Court.

[2] It is an abuse of process for a plaintiff to ask the Court to perfect a fraud designed to cheat financially one’s spouse in divorce proceedings. An exception does not exist where the defendant knew of and participated in the deception, even where the defendant will enjoy a windfall.

[3] The foregoing rule protects the administration of justice from being brought into disrepute. The Court will not help to perfect a fraud.

[4] In the case at bar, the foregoing rule is engaged. The trial of the action is underway with the plaintiff having closed her case in which she seeks to have her claim to ownership in significant funds and various real estate properties recognized (and a particular mortgage declared invalid). Before proceeding further, the defendants seek to have the plaintiff’s claim dismissed as an abuse of process. They say that the plaintiff’s case is not one that a court would put to a jury.

Mr. Justice Funt, in dismissing Ms. Este’s claim, held that her conduct engaged three aspects of abuse of process: illegality, the pursuit of inconsistent rights, and bringing the administration of justice into disrepute.

It is illegal to transfer assets to defeat, delay or defraud creditors. Mr. Justice Funt noted that had Ms. Este sued her mother and brother for the assets before her divorce, she would not have been precluded from pursuing her claim. But in this case, she was relying on evidence of her own illegal conduct, and was accordingly precluded from recovery of the assets.

Secondly, Ms. Este’s assertion of rights was inconsistent with her assertions in her divorce proceedings that she did not own the assets she was seeking to recover from her mother and brother. Mr. Justice Funt wrote at paragraph 33,

A litigant cannot use the Court’s process to state one set of rights in a proceeding and then in a subsequent proceeding assert rights inconsistent with the rights first stated. Otherwise, uncertainty would result and many paths for mischief would be introduced into our law for the avaricious, the malicious, and the vexatious. The litigant must elect at the outset which set of rights the litigant wishes the Court to recognize.

Thirdly, allowing Ms. Este to recover the assets in this context would tend to impair the integrity of, and public confidence in, the administration of justice.

The Court will not assist fraud. Mr. Justice Funt wrote,

[76] In sum, in the divorce proceedings, the plaintiff chose to take steps to defeat her then husband’s legal rights by representing falsely, including in Court documents and under oath, the properties and funds she now claims she rightfully owns. She now wishes to perfect her fraud in the divorce proceedings — a fraud designed to cheat financially her then husband engaging the past unwitting help of officers and a judge of the Court.

[77] Bluntly stated, the plaintiff now asks the Court to help her with her illegal artifice because her mother and brother no longer will. Such, the Court will not do.

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