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|Facebook Becoming the New Weapon in Divorce Battles|
|Published Tuesday, September 28, 2010 7:00 am|
Before the social media explosion, divorce lawyers would often gather information and investigate spouses the old-fashioned way, with private investigators armed with cameras skulking in cars outside motel rooms.
Now, the best place to check for evidence in a divorce case isn't by clicking a camera shutter but by clicking a mouse. Welcome to the often-incriminating world of Facebook.
A female client recently came into our office seeking a divorce. She claimed her husband, an alcoholic, was drinking again. The husband denied it. It was her word against his, at least until a friend stumbled across Facebook photos of the husband drinking beer at a party.
Perhaps even more substantial evidence on the effect of Facebook comes from a recent article in USA TODAY. The story told of an Ohio woman who typed the name of the woman with whom she believed her husband was having an affair into Facebook and suddenly entered her own personal reality TV show. There, in the "other" woman's online photo album, were shots of her husband and his "new" wife being married at Walt Disney World, dressed as Prince Charming and Cinderella, no less.
"I was numb with shock, to tell you the truth," says the woman, an occupational therapist. "There was like an album of 200 pictures on there. Their whole wedding."
The story becomes even more bizarre, when you read that her husband then proceeded to take their children with him to Florida. Now, the only time this woman says she sees her children is on the same Facebook page where she found the wedding photos. "It's stranger than fiction to watch this woman living my life," she says
Facebook has become a tremendous repository of evidence, especially in cases where the person being investigated is the actual subject or creator of that evidence. "Social media stalking" has become invaluable to the legal world, especially for divorce cases. Like cyber breadcrumbs, Facebook leaves a telling trail of photo albums, profile pages, wall comments, status updates and tweets that have become invaluable sources of evidence and leads. Today, divorce firms routinely scan information posted on social media sites to strengthen a case.
A recent survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 81 percent of divorce attorneys have seen an increase in the number of cases using social networking evidence during the past five years. And more than 66 percent of those attorneys said the No. 1 site most often used as evidence is Facebook. Another recent survey by Divorce-Online.com of more than 5,000 attorneys says Facebook is mentioned in about 20 percent of divorce cases.
Posting hugging and kissing photos online can show either a happily married relationship or expose a secretive affair. Furthermore, social media sites have opened windows for infidelity because it has become easier to rekindle old romances.
Stacey Kaiser, a California-based psychotherapist and relationship expert, says she estimates Facebook plays a large factor in divorces. "It's not just your everyday affair," says Kaiser. "When it comes to something like Facebook, you are reconnecting with a long-lost love. All those teenage feelings come back, you feel young again, and it drives you to do something you don't normally do."
I recently read of a man who says that he became increasingly suspicious of his wife's social networking activity when she began hiding her computer screen when he entered the room. He soon discovered his wife was using the site to meet up with an old boyfriend–an increasingly common occurrence as more and more adults join Facebook.
Because Facebook has begun relaxing its privacy settings, more and more of its members' personal details have leaked out without the user ever realizing it. It's like trying to hold water in your clenched hands; eventually, some is going to leak out.
The happy reality for divorce attorneys is that Facebook boasts 400 million users, which means clients are more than likely to be using the site. Each user produces an average of 70 pieces of content monthly and has about 130 friends. This puts a lot of information into play. And the most common way to gather this information centers on mutual online friends who still have access to the profiles of spouses in conflict. A spouse may "de-friend" a partner but overlook their shared friends, who can then be used to access information on the party in question.
In a recent article, Elizabeth K. Englander, a professor of psychology at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, wrote that people release information on social media sites because "they erroneously believe no one will ever see what they post."
When someone does see it, a good divorce attorney can make hay. Information copied from social media sites can affect alimony disputes, custody fights, and other property settlements. Parents have even lost custody of a child because of online indiscretions.
So, if you are a Facebook user and think you're headed towards divorce or a custody battle, the smartest thing to do, at least until the case is over or a settlement is reached, is to go cold turkey and get off Facebook completely.
Christopher DiOrio, Esq.is a partner in the law firm of Maniscalco & DiOrio, Quincy, Mass. A graduate of Southern Methodist University and Boston College Law School, he maintains an active divorce and domestic relations practice, but also specializes in criminal and bankruptcy matters, as well as trying and mediating. For more information, visit www.lawyersact.com.
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