My composure cracked. My voice was thin and barely audible. "Big number? What does that mean?"
"We don't know the final number, but it's large."
"In the millions," Mr. Namarato said. "We don't know yet how many."
See also: Interview with Carol Ross Joynt.
I couldn't swallow. I had the same sinking feeling I'd had in the intensive care unit at Sibley Hospital. There I learned I could lose my husband. Here I was being told that I could now lose everything else. ... I had nowhere to turn. I was on my own, and the other lawyers and the accountant all chimed in to tell me what to do as I felt the panic rising.
"Sell everything," one of them said. ... "Pay the debt and get this behind you."
"If I sold every last thing — and I mean everything — home, apartment, the boat, the cars, books, clothes, art, toys, knickknacks, and my wedding ring — I wouldn't be able to come up with millions of dollars," I said.
"Where's the money?" Mr. Casual Friday asked me, as if I'd robbed a bank and stashed the goods.
"What do you mean where's the money?"
"There must be money somewhere," he said. "He had to do something with the money. Is it in offshore accounts?"
Offshore accounts? These people were his lawyers, for God's sake! Wouldn't they have known if there were offshore accounts?
"Howard didn't hide money," I said. "He spent it." ... The room was suddenly quiet.
I finally worked up the courage to ask the question I wanted most not to think about: "What happens if I can't pay?"
That certainly got everyone's attention. It was clear they'd never considered that possibility. I looked at them. They looked at one another and then back at me. I could hear the hum of the ventilating system. Martin Gray tapped his pen on the table. Someone cleared his throat. Finally Julie, the only woman there from the firm, broke the silence. "Well, you could go for 'innocent spouse.'"
"What's 'innocent spouse'?" I asked.
"It's a code in the tax law that's designed for cases where a spouse who has committed, say, fraud, dies, but the surviving spouse doesn't know anything about the fraud. The surviving spouse can be declared innocent. When that status is awarded, the surviving spouse is absolved of responsibility for the debt."
That's it! Thank God. That's the solution! Before I could open my mouth Julie added, "But you wouldn't qualify."
"What? Why not? I am innocent."
"Because ..." She paused, gathered her breath, then poured it out in a rush: "You had to know."
Reprinted from the book Innocent Spouse by Carol Joynt. Copyright © 2011 by Carol Joynt. Published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc.
You may also like: Jacquelyn Mitchard on starting over. >>