The Conscientious Accountant
Divorces are expensive
As I stare at the piles of paper and Manila folders in front of me my heart rate quickens and sweat beads trickle down my neck and onto the collar of my lavender blouse. If inspiration doesn’t strike soon I’m going to have to put my suit jacket back on to avoid the appearance of pit stains. What was I thinking when I agreed to represent Sam in her divorce proceedings? I’m a third-year litigation attorney at a big firm. I write briefs. No, that’s a stretch. I cite check briefs. Maybe add some case quotes and one-sentence commentary if the partners are feeling generous.
But Sam was desperate and needed someone to take her case pro bono. Needless to say, she didn’t have many other options. And she said it would be straightforward. They would split custody and Paul would pay alimony for two years until Sam could get back on her feet financially. After all, when Chloe was born they both agreed that Sam would step back from her high-paying consulting gig and be a stay-at-home mom. It was only fair that Paul give her some time to get back into the workforce especially since finding consulting work with a flexible schedule would be no easy feat.
But something had changed. Paul was now refusing to pay any alimony. And more than that, he was fighting for full custody of Chloe. Clearly, he was just using Chloe as leverage to get Sam to drop her alimony request, but he was going about it in the most vicious way possible. During yesterday’s hearing, Paul’s lawyer questioned Sam about the antidepressant she was taking and her weekly therapy appointments. She explained that she only sought treatment after suffering a miscarriage two years ago and the antidepressant did the trick, but Paul’s lawyer introduced journal entries from within the last six months where she appeared to be struggling. Sam admitted the divorce proceedings had triggered her depression and anxiety, but she was coping. If she hadn’t then dissolved into tears, the Judge might have bought it. But as it was, Sam came off looking a bit unstable. I tried to rehabilitate her by having her describe Paul’s emotional abuse over the last few years, but Sam refused to detail his rages. She was trying to take the high road. Unfortunately, that tactic doesn’t always work in divorce proceedings.
With nothing to go on, it was looking more and more likely that Chloe would soon be residing with her dad on a full-time basis. Even though neither Paul nor Chloe wanted that. Ugh! And to think all of this human devastation was over money. Though, to be fair, Paul didn’t seem to have as much as I’d previously assumed. Which was odd given their condo on the Upper West Side and their vacation house in the Hamptons.
Judge Morris clears her throat. “I don’t mean to rush you, Ms. Sullivan, but do you plan on asking Mr. Wright any questions today?”
I stop staring at my lack of evidence piles and meet the Judge’s quizzical gaze. “Um, yes, your honor. I have just a couple of questions. This shouldn’t take long.”
That’s the understatement of the century. I have exactly zero questions prepared for Paul.
I dig through my stack of financials and plan to walk Paul through his income in an attempt to convince the Judge that while Paul does not appear to have much extraneous cash, he still has more than Sam.
“So Paul. I mean Mr. Wright.” Damnit! “You’ve submitted an affidavit to the court attesting that while you make roughly $50,000 per month, after taxes and expenses, you have less than $3,000 of disposable income. Is that correct?”
“Yes, that’s what the affidavit says, Liz. I mean Ms. Sullivan.”
I want to smack that smug smirk right off his face. “Okay. Let’s go through these expenses.”
Judge Morris interrupts. “I don’t see the need for this, Ms. Sullivan. I’ve already reviewed the expenses and found them reasonable. Mr. Wright is in the top tax bracket and that takes a deep cut out of his income each month.”
Judge Morris is right. His net income is only $20,000 each month after taxes and that leaves $3,000 after mortgages, car payments, and utilities. And then it hits me. As a lawyer, a significant portion of my income also goes to taxes. But not sixty percent! I’ve never heard of a tax percentage that high outside of Europe.
“Can I have a moment, your honor?”
Judge Morris sighs softly. “Yes, but just a moment counselor.”
Flipping through Paul’s tax returns I confirm he’s paid almost sixty percent to taxes for the last three years. But going back a few years prior to that, he was paying around the thirty percent you would expect at his income level.
“Mr. Wright, you are an accountant at one of the big five accounting firms, correct?”
“Yes, Liz. You know I am.”
“Please refrain from addressing me by my first name. So, as an accountant, could you explain to the court what happens when a citizen such as yourself overpays their taxes during the year.”
Paul’s jaw clenches slightly. “I guess that citizen would request a refund.”
“Thank you. What if you discover you didn’t just overpay the current year’s taxes, but had overpaid for let’s say the last two or three tax years? Can you still request a refund?”
Paul glares at me. “I can’t see the relevance of this, Ms. Sullivan. But in that extraordinary situation, you would have to refile the last years’ tax returns to document the overpayment. And then, yes, I suppose you could get a refund.”
“Well, you’ll need to get on that then. Because, by my calculations, you have about a $450,000 tax refund coming to you. That should be more than sufficient to pay my client the requested alimony of $200,000 over the course of the next two years.”
Paul appears to be at a loss for words. As does Judge Morris.
“Just one last question, your honor. Mr. Wright, how long have you been plotting to screw my client out of alimony payments. Because by the looks of your tax returns, I’d guess at least three years.”
“Given these circumstances, we will be adding an additional $100,000 to our alimony request for the subterfuge. No further questions.”