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Beware, Beware, Be a Very Wary Bear… Protect your privacy in this digital age.

Several years ago I had a client who was normally very careful about such things.  Her phone was password protected, as was her tablet.  Ditto her laptop.  She had changed her passwords after starting her divorce.  Then one day while her ex was picking up the kids she set her phone down on the kitchen counter after using it and, before it shut off, turned away for a few moments.  Her ex grabbed it and bolted away.  He forwarded email to his email, including some pictures that were… incriminating… as well as email he shouldn’t have seen.

It created real problems in a nasty custody battle that took months to undo.  All because of a moment of what really cannot be called carelessness.  Who would have thought he would grab her phone in the few seconds before it shut off?  It created a great deal of heartache and embarrassment as well as legal trouble.  He was a supreme jerk, but I’ve added this to my list of warnings I give to new clients.

Spouses often do not realize how much their partners know about their online accounts.  Your ex may well know your regular passwords, and even if you open up a new bank account, if you’ve used the same password and login (“SuZZYQ1234%”, “Yosemite!1993”) for everything since 2003 they may be able to access every new account you open.  Sometimes if they inherited the computer it will have conveniently stored your passwords and will fill them in for them, allowing them access after you leave to bank accounts, email, social sites, even Netflix.  Creepy AND potentially disastrous.

When you separate from a partner, you need to make a serious break with the old.  Get a new email account (there are plenty of free ones available, from Gmail to Yahoo to your internet provider).  Choose login information that you’ve never used before.  Use the lock codes for all of your electronic devices, and keep an eye on them; get in the habit of shutting them off when you use them rather than setting them down and letting them shut off on their own.

Be cautious about tweets, emails and social site postings.  Divorce lawyers view these as gold mines.  That funny picture of Dad passed out at a party with a bottle in his arms his buddies took is great for laughs but the judge may not find it so funny in a custody case.  The picture of you cavorting with two brawny young half-naked youths half your age may not be probative but may be prejudicial and you can’t make the judge’s mind forget what her eyes saw.

I have had clients defend their incriminating Facebook pictures by saying “I unfriended my ex and all her friends.  No way she will see these pictures”  That doesn’t mean some well-intentioned friend won’t pull a picture and send it to the ex in an effort to gain revenge for you and say, “See how much fun my buddy is having now that he is free from you?”

The rule of thumb in any family law proceeding is that you must be prepared for the judge to see anything that you post online, tweet, email, Snapchat, etc.  These digital communications give us the dubious option of immediate communications and sharing universally that which previously would never have happened, as the time it would have taken to put us in the position to share (and the limited circle of friends we could share it with) would have either given us the wisdom not to share it or would have limited the damage.  Showing a picture to some friends to laugh about at work is not the same as posting it online where millions can copy and preserve it forever (and show a judge…).

By the way – the picture of the guy passed out drunk posed with the bottle by friends on his Facebook page?  I used that in a child custody case quite effectively.

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Expect the Judge to See Everything You Write, So Write For the Judge

Divorce or parentage actions touch upon our most raw emotions.  Anger, betrayal, fear, regret.  Whether you initiated the proceeding or were blindsided by a deputy sheriff at work, you will be going through a crock pot of emotions and really, really want to vent them.

Make sure you don’t do that in texts or emails to your former partner.  You need to be aware that everything you say, do or especially write will probably end up being presented in some way before the judge at some point in the proceeding.  While you may get a momentary satisfaction for telling the $@*!& just what you think of them, that text or email could cost you plenty later on.

Write every text message, every email with the understanding that you are writing it for at least four people – your former partner, the judge, and two attorneys.  All will probably see it.

Every text or email should be written for the judge to show what a reasonable person you are, and where possible to show how unreasonable your former partner is.  You are creating a paper trail so that the judge has something in her hand at a later date when both sides are declaring how they have tried to settle this or solve problems.  The judge doesn’t want to be the arbiter of little issues, she wants to have the parties act like adults and solve things without wasting limited judicial resources.  When you can show that you tried, via texts going back over time, to solve these little issues in an adult manner with a reasonable tone, you are more likely to have the judge listen to your side of the story in other matters that, well, really matter.

Don’t answer emails or texts when you are angry at something your ex just wrote; cool down a bit, run it past your attorney before replying.  Anger will lead to sharp words that may hurt more than help.  When they have written something nasty and you respond with something reasonable, you will win much more than the immediate battle – you may win the longer war.