June 28, 2011
What If Ruth and Bernie Madoff Had Divorced?
White-collar defense attorneys are often asked by clients accused of or investigated for theft or fraud, or by their client’s spouses, what could be done to protect the spouse financially. My advice had always been for the spouse to seek advice from a knowledgeable and independent debtor-creditor attorney. As a result of the New York Court of Appeals ruling in CFTC v. Walsh last week, my current advice is to consult with a knowledgeable and independent matrimonial attorney.
In that case, the CFTC and SEC attempted to claw back from a divorced "innocent spouse" funds allegedly stolen by her ex-husband that she received in a divorce settlement. The state court, basing its decision largely on issues of finality and fair consideration (and perhaps that a different ruling would disproportionately harm women), ruled that a wife uninvolved and unaware of her husband’s criminality could not be required to disgorge the proceeds to the theft victims.
The case came to the New York court in a peculiar posture. The federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals referred the case to the New York State court to answer two questions of law, one of which the state court modified before answering.
I am far from sure that the Second Circuit will be comfortable ratifying the state court’s ruling, which I personally find questionable on both logical and policy grounds. If, however, the Second Circuit does accept the state court’s reasoning and precludes disgorgement from the wife, fraudsters fearful of eventual apprehension and considerate of their spouses might seek or encourage divorce to assure the spouse’s secure financial future. And if Bernie and Ruth Madoff had been divorced before Bernie’s fraud was revealed, under such a ruling Ruth Madoff (presumably an "innocent spouse") would now be a very, very, very rich woman.
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