In our last article, we wrote about hiding assets the old-fashioned way. For much of this writer’s career, the game was “cash”. The pizzeria, the auto body shop, the produce vendor. They lived in 3,500 square foot houses and drove luxury cars. Nevertheless, the tax returns showed a mere $30,000 in income, a remarkable achievement.
In the last 20 years, the cash world has measurably changed. I have worked alongside fellow lawyers who told me that I could turn them upside down and empty their wallets without finding more than $20 in cash. When I stand in line at the convenience store today people in front of me are buying cigarettes and a sandwich with a debit or credit card. The dry cleaner and yes, even my local pizzeria will take plastic for any transaction over $5.00. So cash is dead, right?
Well, not so fast. When we first wrote about bitcoin and its companion cryptocurrencies in 2014, it appeared that these would be assets accessible to the rich. In January 2017, a bitcoin commanded $900 and there were very few places to trade or exchange it. A year later, it had catapulted to $17,000. Then it collapsed. In January 2019, it was worth $3,800. The beginning of 2020 brought it back up to $7,400, still half of the value two years earlier. So, bitcoin had two problems. It was not easily accessible to trade and it was highly volatile; two sound reasons to stay away even if your goal was to hide assets from a spouse. After all, if you had $17,000 you wanted to hide in January 2018 you could buy bitcoin and hope no one figured it out. However, a year later, your crummy coin had lost 75% of its value, worse than disclosing and sharing the asset with your unworthy spouse.
2020 changed everything. If you bought a “coin” early in 2020, you paid $7,400. A year later, your coin was worth $32,000. Last week it was commanding $63,000. Your dollar investment was now worth $9.00. Then there was last Saturday night, when your bitcoin lost 10% of its value while you were in bed sleeping.
A few months ago, I engaged a contractor to fix some things around my house. As I signed his proposal, he asked if I had any bitcoin. I confessed that I was wary. His response was his whole family had investments in bitcoin. As he left, I mused where his family would have access to acquire virtual coins at $18,000 a pop.
A week ago, I found my answer. I was in the supermarket and as I departed I saw a currency machine at the front of the store where you bring your change or buy ice or umbrellas. “Bitcoin sold here.” So now I can hit the grocery store for $20 in groceries and take $100 cash back. I then wander over and put my $100 in the bitcoin machine. That will get me 0.00159 of a bitcoin assuming no one is going to ding me for a 10% commission to buy. My spouse will never know because my bitcoin machine and I have a confidential relationship, right?
My grocery store visit prompted me to wonder whether this was an aberration. So I looked at a site to search for places that sold cryptocurrencies. It is https://coinatmradar.com/bitcoin-atm-near-me/. My office is 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia in an affluent Chester County suburb. My search turned up 20 cryptocurrency vending machines within fifteen miles. All but one was in a gas station or a convenience store. Perhaps American investors have shifted from brokerages to petrol stations. My suspicion is that these investors are in fact lottery ticket buyers who decided that at least all is not lost when the winning ticket is drawn.
So, I smell a cryptocurrency bubble emerging. However, this is not an investment blog. What concerns me is the temptation to use a vending machine to hide assets when it’s right there in the grocery store or gas station. Unhappy spouses who don’t want to share their marital assets may be “parking” wealth at the bitcoin machine.
What’s the solution in a divorce setting? It can be dubbed “Forensics at home.” Gather a year of bank statements. Prepare a chart of cash withdrawals. If you see a regular pattern of large cash withdrawals from particular places, go look at the location and see if there are cryptocurrency machines. We have just asked a client to do this and to his surprise, his spouse had $32,000 in cash withdrawals over 18 months. Certainly, we all need cash but when was the last time you spent an average of $60 a day in actual Federal Reserve currency every single day for 545 consecutive days. That was in addition to $9,000 in groceries, $9,000 in clothing and $9,000 in personal care expenses that showed as withdrawals for those purchases. The clear message is that money is being palmed. It used to be in the cigar box, or a shoebox in the closet. Now the shoebox is at the gas station and the grocery store.