Technology has complicated marriages to an alarming degree in recent years. Not only do lawyers say social media played a role in the vast majority of divorces in 2012 - even for couples who have never had Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or other social accounts - but when a couple parts ways, who keeps the iTunes account, the shared e-mail address or the online business?
It’s not all bad news: digital evidence can bring swifter settlements and technology, such as Skype, e-mail and photo-sharing services, can make it easier for parents to stay organized and keep in touch with their children. AVG's guide gives advice on these things as well as:
- Making an inventory of and dividing up digital assets
- Social media in divorce
- Tools to make divorce easier for children
Free download in PDF format.
“With everything else you have to contend with during a divorce, sorting out your digital dealings probably feels bewildering and intrusive. But sooner or later, certain digital aspects will need your attention, and the more control you have over your presence online, the less overwhelmed you will feel.”
As nearly every aspect of our lives becomes entwined in the digital world, it’s ever more difficult to untangle the shared threads. It’s no longer a case of you keep the CDs, I’ll take the stereo and speakers.
And then there was one. One PayPal account. One iTunes. One Picasa. One Dropbox. One iPad. And two of you who no longer share the same house, much less the same cloud storage.
From the wedding video shared on YouTube to the baby pictures sprinkled over Instagram; the retweets of inside jokes; the ‘married’ status on Facebook and the e-mail account you both used – they still exist as if nothing has happened, even though you’re now debating who keeps the thousands of songs on Spotify and the films downloaded to your iPad. Or, for that matter, who gets the iPad.
It’s a tricky balance. Because of the unprecedented extent to which our lives now exist online, and how quickly the digital sphere has evolved, we’re in new territory.
In some ways, though, it’s nothing more than a new twist on an age-old conundrum. True, there are gadgets and digital assets to be divvied up, but it’s not that different from splitting the proceeds of the house sale or handing custody of the dog to the person who feeds and walks it. For the most part, your digital investments can either be divided in half or only one person gets them.
The major distinction is in how much of your identity, personality, actions and memories exist in a digital context - and how much those ephemeral aspects are interwoven.
Divorce is one of life’s most stressful events, taking financial, emotional, mental and even physical tolls on those affected both directly and indirectly. With the advent of new technology, there’s one more stress factor to add to that list: digital.
With more aspects of our lives being shared or stored online, the scope for making an upsetting discovery - or being discovered - is more substantial than ever before.
It all comes back to your so-called ‘digital footprint,’ which is probably bigger than you realize.
The digital trail
If social media played a part in your marriage breakdown, as it reportedly did in some 80 percent of U.S. divorces in 2012, then deciding who’ll claim the family Facebook account may be the least of your concerns. But don’t expect to kiss it goodbye quite so soon.
Divorce lawyers are increasingly citing content discovered on digital sources as evidence in negotiations and court proceedings. Social media, in particular, has been a game-changer.
“The ultimate leverage is the fear factor, the fear of having to explain what you’ve done, on the witness stand,” saidRandall M. Kessler, an Atlanta-based lawyer and past chair of the family law sections of both the American Bar Association and the State Bar of Georgia.
It all comes back to your so-called ‘digital footprint,’ which is probably bigger than you realize. Quite apart from the obvious - the dubious status updates, friendships rekindled online and accounts with e-dating services - other digital activity can raise red flags of infidelity, poor parenting choices and other factors important in divorce proceedings.
Private content, such as e-mails, financial transactions, cellphone records and more, can be sought through court. Then there are the smartphone photos shared on social sites, imagerecognition searches, security cameras, electronic toll collection systems and so on: even if you’re scrupulous online, you don’t have to step far from home to have your actions captured, stored and used in legal proceedings.
Honesty is always the best policy. But sometimes too much sharing can land spouses and parents in trouble.
When it comes to social media use during a divorce, Kessler's advice is: Just don’t do it.
In custody disputes, digital habits or flippant online comments can work against parents. In 2011, a Connecticut judge who ordered a couple to swap social media passwords found in favor of the father, citing unfavorable content posted by the mother. In another case, a mother’s claims of homeschooling her daughter didn’t hold up when it was discovered the mom was spending up to 10 hours a day playing online games.
Laws vary around the country and states are struggling to keep up with the rapidly evolving digital sphere. But given how eager many people are to share their every thought online, “catching and finding [evidence] is going to be easier” than ever, said Kessler, founder and partner of Kessler & Solomiany in Atlanta.
Nor are clients permitted to delete content, such as photos or comments posted on social sites, which would be considered spoliation of evidence and could bring a court-imposed fine.
When it comes to social media use during a divorce, Kessler’s advice, mirrored by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, is: Just don’t do it.
“Stop broadcasting your life and be sure your friends don’t do it for you,” said Kessler. “Don’t put anything out there you don’t want to see in court. Just think about it first and use common sense.”
If objectionable behavior does come to light - and you can be sure that it will - Kessler said, “The best way to fix it is be honest and own up to it. I always tell my clients it’s it’s better to be caught cheating than lying because if you lie then you forfeit your credibility.”
Digital 'I dos'
Do take stock of your digital footprint and assess what to do with any accounts or content
Do remember that you might have future dealings with this person, and you certainly will if you have children together. Things posted online live on forever.
Do reach out for help from trusted friends or use online resources for information on things such as counseling, health or legal advice
Do appreciate that your ex has a right to move on, just as you do, and not everyone comes to terms with change in the same time frame. The internet is great for many reasons, but snooping into your ex’s online activities is not one of them.
Do be respectful and restrained when it comes to online communication with or about your ex.
Do continue verbal communication if possible. Misunderstandings can sometimes be cleared up with a dispassionate chat, and talking can limit the damage from confusing or misinterpreted e-mails, texts or posts.
Do think carefully about how to announce your split. Is Facebook really the right place, even if you’re just changing your relationship status? Making rash status updates might unintentionally hurt or alarm people.
Do take time before you delete digital content or de-friend anyone; you might later regret disposing of photos or communications, or losing touch with people.
Digital 'I don'ts'
Don’t criticize, accuse, blame or stalk your former partner, their family or friends, especially if you risk saying or doing something online that could come back to bite you.
Don’t text or post if you’re intoxicated or in a particularly fragile state.
Don’t hack your ex’s accounts or other content and don’t try to destroy your own digital footprint; it’s almost impossible to completely delete information online, and it could work against you if an attorney tracks it down.
Don’t sabotage your ex’s business online, such as by posting negative reviews
Don’t start a digital shouting match - no good can come from it.
Don’t keep a running online commentary on the proceedings.
Don’t jump to conclusions or read too much into comments, posts or e-mails.
Whatever you do, don’t air your dirty (video) laundry for the world to see, no matter how much pleasure you might get out of imagining your ex’s horror when (s)he discovers those pictures hadn’t actually been deleted.
Do you plan to stay connected with your ex on social networks, such as LinkedIn? Friends and other mutual acquaintances will take cues from the way you handle the situation.
Either way, consider taking the pressure off others by asking them not to take sides – although perhaps without as much fanfare as the Brooklyn couple who sang a chirpy YouTube duet explaining their split and asking for support.
Unravelling your shared digital assets is another story. Start by making an inventory: downloads, such as Netflix; photo- or video-sharing and social sites; cloud-based content; online games or interactive communities; e-commerce such as PayPal, Amazon or eBay accounts. Can you discuss how to divide these, or what to do with things such as photos? Each service’s terms and conditions should state whether they are transferable. A mediator or attorney may need to get involved, or there is software to manage the process and keep both sides up to speed.
A shared online business or other digital financial interests could be more complicated to sort out, and will probably require professional legal advice.
What about your social presence? You can deactivate your account or change passwords and privacy settings. But technically, any intellectual property - photos, videos and other content - may belong to the social site. Facebook’s terms of service state that users “grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sublicensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any Intellectual Property content that you post on or in connection with Facebook.” That means everything from your ‘relationship status’ to your shared wedding album belongs to Facebook.
On the other hand, technology can actually make things easier, especially if you have children together.
Help at hand
Texting about drop-off times and locations may be less fraught than a telephone conversation, and e-mail works wonders for agreeing to upcoming schedule changes or small requests that don’t require a phone call.
A word of caution, though: written messages can be easily misconstrued, so try not to jump to conclusions. Before firing off a passive-aggressive reply, take a deep breath and dial your ex’s number, if possible.
If you or your children have moved or visitation times are otherwise limited, photo-sharing sites and video links may work well. Skype and FaceTime can somewhat normalize the situation for children, but video chats can take some getting used to; don’t be surprised if your children find it awkward or difficult at first, and try not to put too much pressure on them if they don’t want to come to the screen.
These services also work well for former in-laws who still want regular contact with their grandchildren. If you’re not comfortable inviting them to your house, you can still support their relationship with your children by suggesting they keep in touch over a video link.
Online resources can work to your benefit in other ways, too. Not only can you research the kind of legal representation you want, there are even do-it-yourself-divorce ‘kits’ online to minimize the costs. Additionally, there are countless, reputable online resources for helping you and your children deal with these difficult changes, or point you toward assistance in your community.
With everything else you have to contend with during a divorce, sorting out your digital dealings probably feels bewildering and intrusive. Wouldn’t it just be easier to snap your laptop shut and let Twitter keep buzzing away without you? Perhaps. But sooner or later, certain digital aspects will need your attention, and the more control you have over your presence online, the less overwhelmed you will feel.
If nothing else, think of it as a digital house cleaning: out with the old, in with the new. You might even be pleasantly surprised by what you find.