The debtor, whose family lives in Brazil, claims to have no foreign investments. He mentioned years ago that his family had some rental properties in Sao Palo, but you have never seen them, and you don’t know exactly where they are located. You suspect that he may be a part owner.
The process for finding overseas property can vary drastically from country to country. Even in the U.S., finding property will be more or less difficult depending on the county where the property is located.
The easiest searches are in places such as Great Britain, which has a centralized national property registry available online. The French national property registry (called the Cadastre) includes not only France, but also Corsica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana, and Reunion Island. At the opposite end of the spectrum are countries like Greece and India, which have no centralized registry and, in many areas, keep only inaccurate, outdated handwritten records.
Before you can start your search, though, you need to know where to look. If your debtor is foreign, then the obvious starting place is his country of origin. Scour your Christmas card list for the addresses of relatives and close friends because your debtor may own property nearby. You may also be able to nail down the debtor’s foreign address by searching public records other than the local property registry. For example, in Norway, all tax returns are published online in what is called the Skattelister, and they include the town of residence of every person who files a return.
In some cases, you may need to know the exact street address of the debtor’s foreign property, as even the best online registry may only be searchable by address rather than by name. A chat with the debtor’s childhood friends or his parents’ neighbors may be enough to get you the information you need, especially if the debtor is from a small town.
Even if you know of a particular property, be sure to check local records to verify its value and ownership. What you find may surprise you. We recently had a case in which a foreign wife asked us to find her husband’s assets in the U.S. She told us to ignore any mention of property in South Dakota because she knew all about it. She explained that she was a part owner of the property, and that her husband had told her that the property was worthless. A quick search of the county records showed us that the property actually had a lucrative retail store on the premises. The records also revealed that the husband had transferred the company out of his name and placed it under the name of an LLC owned by a family member.
What did this tell us? That the property was worth much more than our client suspected. Her husband had lied about its value and had forged her signature on the documents transferring the property to his family’s company. Our client had never heard of the company, and had no idea that she had been bilked out of her share.