Lying in Family Court
William A. Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
When I became a family law attorney/mediator after a dozen years as a
therapist, one of the biggest surprises was the extent of lying in
Family Court: lies about income, assets and even complete fabrications
of child abuse and domestic violence. Why would people lie so much, I
wondered? How did they get away with it? The following is my
psychosocial analysis of what I believe has become an epidemic:
Men lie: It was a sad phone call from a relatively new client. He
informed me his father had just died. He had quit his job and was
moving back east to wrap up his father's affairs. He asked me to tell
his wife's attorney that he would not be able to pay child support for
their three young children for a long time. (There was no support
order yet.) The next day, his wife's attorney called me back and
described how upset his wife was to learn of her father-in-law's
death. So upset, that she had called his father -- and had a nice
Women lie: A mother involved in a custody battle told the court in
dramatic detail about physical abuse at the hands of her husband. She
even submitted reports of visits to doctors and emergency rooms for
her bruises. However, a court-ordered psychological evaluation
determined the allegations were false. The court agreed and awarded
custody to the father. A few weeks later the mother picked up the
children from school and disappeared for a year. She was caught, sent
to jail for parental kidnaping, and the children returned to the
Societal Increase in Lying
Surveys show that lying has increased over the past decade. In 1999
alone: the President was tried in Congress for perjury; a popular
journalist in Boston was publicly fired for fabricating heart-rending
stories; and a scientist was exposed for falsifying research on a
high-profile safety issue. We have become a society of individuals.
Personal gain is more important than community values. In this mobile
"information age," we rely on strangers and are easily fooled. In
business, politics, and the movies, winning is everything. Successful
manipulation and deceit are admired. In court, lying is often rewarded
and rarely punished.
No Penalty for Perjury
Divorce Courts rely heavily on "he said, she said" declarations,
signed "under penalty of perjury." However, a computer search of
family law cases published by the appellate courts shows only one
appellate case in California involving a penalty for perjury: People
v. Berry (1991) 230 Cal. App. 3d 1449. The penalty? Probation. Perjury
is a criminal offense, punishable by fine or jail time, but it must be
prosecuted by the District Attorney--who does not have the time.
Family Court judges have the ability to sanction (fine) parties, but
no time to truly determine that one party is lying. Instead, they may
assume both parties are lying or just weigh their credibility.With no
specific consequence, the risks of lying are low.
Personality Disorders and Patterns of Lying
Family Courts see everything: from small deceptions about income to
the complete fabrication of abuse. The increase in lying seems to
correspond with the rising number of people with personality
disorders, as I described in my Spring 1998 newsletter. They often
have internal distress, less empathy for others, a highly adversarial
world view, an intense and manipulative nature, and a sense of
victimization which they use to justify harming others. Studies show
they have identifiable and predictable patterns of lying:
A party with a Borderline Personality Disorder may lie out of anger or
even self-deception in an effort to maintain a bond with their child
or spouse--or to retaliate for abandonment. Battles over custody and
visitation are common.
One with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder may lie to boost
themselves or to put other people down. They enjoy manipulating the
truth and other people's lives. They may experience excitement and a
sense of power by successfully fooling the court and dominating the
other party. An Antisocial Personality Disorder is characterized by
deception, manipulation, and disrespect for authority. Commonly known
as "con artists," they are skilled at breaking the rules. They
fabricate detailed events and use the courts to get revenge or money.
Their lack of empathy makes them constant liars -- and often violent.
A Histrionic Personality Disorder is often highly dramatic and
demanding, with superficial charm and seductiveness. They are skilled
at lying and self-deception. Fabrication is also common.
Few people can visually detect deception. Research on judges, federal
polygraphers, psychiatrists and college students showed that all were
no better than chance using a standardized videotape test. Only Secret
Service Agents were better than average at distinguishing truth and
Some studies show that the more confident a person is, the less
effective they are at lie detection. Studies of police investigators
and customs inspectors found that those with more experience were less
accurate than novices.
Ineffectiveness of Non-Verbal Cues
Many people believe they can determine whether someone is lying by
observing non-verbal behavior, such as: touching their face, blinking
their eyes, suddenly itchy nose, neck-scratching.
These behaviors indicate anxiety, which most people experience when
then lie. However, most people display anxiety when they are under any
pressure, such as being challenged about their honesty. Therefore,
these symptoms are unreliable.
Studies show that the only way non-verbal cues may be truly helpful is
to observe a person over time. Their changes in non-verbal behavior
may be a more accurate indicator of lying.
An additional problem is that those with antisocial personalities
actually become less anxious when they lie, and therefore do not
exhibit behavioral cues and do not register anxious symptoms on lie
Effectiveness of Examining Records
Studies have shown that examining documents for contradictions has
been more reliable than focusing on non-verbal cues. In fact, they
have found that evaluators were best at lie detection when they were
blind to nonverbal cues. Those who just read transcripts were the most
What Can Be Done?
The adversarial process naturally encourages lying: winning is the
goal, liars get equal time, and the most skillful adversary wins --
regardless of the truth. To overcome this inherent problem, we need:
More use of mediation: Mediation and negotiation focus on
problem-solving for the future. Lying about the past has little
relevance. The parties know the lies and do not tolerate them.
More judicial time: Most divorce court decisions are made in 10-20
minute hearings. Judges must determine the custody and visitation
schedule, the amounts of child support and spousal support, and often
whether restraining orders are appropriate. There is little time to
analyze each declaration to determine who is lying. Judicial lectures
alone have little impact or the opposite effect on personality
More judges with more time could reduce lying from the start. More
attorney research: Attorneys often advocate for their clients'
statements without investigation. They often assume they will never
know who is telling the truth. Instead, they should learn about
personality disorders and patterns of lying, more carefully question
their clients, and more aggressively seek corroborating evidence.
More therapist awareness: Therapists are trained to form impressions
based on interpersonal observations rather than external evidence.
They form strong bonds and believe their clients. They can provide the
court with observations of their own client's behavior, but should not
reach conclusions based on hearing one side. They need to be more wary
of manipulation in court cases.
More consequences: It is an established dynamic of human behavior that
rules made, but not enforced, are increasingly broken. Lying in court
is already illegal. So long as there is no penalty for perjury, lying
will increase. Family Court sanctions (fines) should be used for
More training: Court-related professionals need to realize that you
cannot tell who is lying by simple observation. Yet one can learn
personality dynamics which help indicate who might be lying, patterns
of lying and where to look for evidence.