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The Monopoly of Family Law

By 20 November 2019General
monopoly of family law

Over the last winter school holidays, I found myself entertaining my young children inside by introducing them to the old-school game of Monopoly.

Now I’m not talking about one of the many modern variants of the game but the classic cardboard, plastic, faded and dog eared paper note, original version which has somehow managed to stay with me from my own childhood, through a couple of uni share houses and even survived the culling of stuff during the move from Brisbane to Toowoomba nearly five years ago.

Monopoly is one of those classic games that holds quite a lot of sentimental memories, not so much for the game but in the people you play with and how they play. I think almost anyone knows what I’m talking about in terms of the “types” of players. That quiet person that suddenly becomes a blood thirsty capitalist that is so competitive that they will happily bankrupt their own mother if it means getting the property they want. The person who does not seem to be remotely interested but for each roll of the dice seems to find themselves cruising around the board landing on their own streets interspersed with chance and community chest cards which always seem to come up with the “get out of jail free” card or “first prize in the beauty competition”. Then there is the inevitable unhappy player where nothing seems to go their way. From the start of the game when they got stuck with the thimble, things just were not going their way. Try as they might, they always seemed to land on someone else’s string of hotels, supertax and the inevitable “go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not
collect $200”.

Inevitably, once my boys had learnt the game, there came a rainy afternoon recently when they decided to get it out for themselves. I joined them on the lounge room floor sometime after they had been playing for what must have been the best part of two hours. As I watched them, I could see their own little personalities playing out in the various styles I recalled from many of the player types. The eldest was the clear capitalist with a fist full of cash and lines of hotels on most of the board.

The youngest, it seemed, was having one of those tougher days with his thimble; the meagre property haul and scattering of houses not really what he had hoped for. As they continued to move around the board, I could see their interest continuing to wane and I could tell they were ready to move on to something else.

Almost on cue, the youngest quite astutely worked out for himself how every game of monopoly actually ends – one player decides it’s all too hard, walks away and gives the board a decent knock on the way to disturb the carefully aligned pieces on the board, leaving a decent mess behind. The eldest shortly followed suit with a parting suggestion that dad would need to sort out the mess left behind. I called them back and got them to help me put it away before they moved on to the next thing.

As I found myself on the floor helping to pack away this ragged collection of coloured cardboard and plastic now strewn across a reasonable area of the lounge room with a few random houses and hotels under the couch for good measure, the irony suddenly dawned on me that this exercise had all the hallmarks of many family law property settlements.

The irony was even more apparent when, folding up the eldest’s side of the board, it became clear that there were at least a couple of extra $500 notes which made me suspect that his remarkable success as a capitalist may have had less to do with his extraordinary property development acumen but more out of a desire to take advantage of the trusting nature of his younger brother.

Certainly, when it comes to “extra” cash being splashed around the monopoly board, then looking under the side of the board of the sibling who managed to buy every property he landed on and build a dozen hotels but always seemed to have a fist full of cash, seemed a pretty obvious place to look.

In the real world of family law, it’s not that easy but it can be done. For me, before advising someone of the need to spend the time and resources in getting a forensic accountant involved, it’s about getting as much financial information and documentation as I can and then looking at what it shows. Do the assets that have been acquired just seem far more than the income or cash at bank could obviously support? When looking at bank and credit card statements, what’s not there? If the client can tell me that the bills have historically been getting paid or the financial statement of a party shows expenditure on things like home maintenance, alcohol or gambling but there is nothing on the bank statements to show that expenditure, then is it coming from an undisclosed source, such as another bank account or in cash. From there, I can help guide my client on what to do next to verify what really is going on.

In the monopoly world, upon finding that extra cash under the board, it didn’t take too much reassurance to make the younger sibling feel a lot better about himself to know that his brother had helped himself to a few extra dollars from the bank during the game so that he knew what to look out for next time.

In the family law world, sadly, if someone has already helped themselves to the equivalent of a sneaky $500 from the joint bank account during the relationship when nobody was looking and spent it away already, then rarely am I able to assist them to actually get it back when it comes time to sort out a property settlement.

I do, however, have a fairly analytical and useful body of expertise to know when something does not look quite right and can help guide someone on where to look in terms of financial disclosure to find out what has actually gone on and try to follow it through to another bank account or (hopefully) a property or another asset.

When it came to my boys’ game of monopoly, I personally didn’t start the game or have a lot to do with it in the beginning. It was something they started out themselves with seemingly the best of intentions to have a good time together. They had bought and sold properties, paid some tax, and had some good (and not so good) fortune. Somewhere along the way something changed and they started heading in different directions where one or perhaps both of them were over it. By the time I came and sat beside them the game was pretty much already over and, when it was all too hard, turned to me to help pack up the mess.

In no way am I trying to put a childlike gloss on the family law situation or minimise the complex and unique experience of every person that goes through a relationship breakdown or separation. The reality is however, even if I was not involved at the beginning or during the relationship, I will always do the best I can to assist my clients when it has all got too hard. I can’t change the game or the pieces but I will work exceptionally hard to help find and pack away the pieces of the last game, put them back in the box, and leaving them free to move on and try again whenever they are ready.

That and always remember – if in doubt check under the board first.

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