Monday, December 27, 2010

E-Mail, Online Accounts and Divorce

If you are going through a divorce, you surely do not want your estranged spouse knowing what you are thinking about the divorce, where you are going away for the weekend, how you are spending your money or what you are telling your lawyer. But, incredibly, many people going through a divorce know all this information and even more about their spouse. How? Husbands and wives are accessing their spouse's e-mail accounts and reading their incoming and outgoing e-mail, including what should be privileged and confidential communications with their lawyers.

How does this happen? It is incredibly easy. Most husband and wives know their partner's passwords for online e-mail, credit card and bank accounts and can tap into a treasure trove of information about their soon to be ex with a few taps on the keyboard. Most divorce lawyers can tell some pretty amazing stories about what their clients have discovered in their spouse's e-mail.

Is accessing an estranged spouse's e-mail legal? It may all depend upon the circumstances, but, in ordinary cases, it is unlikely that someone will be charged with a crime for doing it in Maryland. (In Michigan, a trial is currently set for a man who accessed his wife's e-mail account without her permission, but it is unlikely that, even if he is convicted, the case will lead to a groundswell of criminal prosecutions for this crime.)

Want to prevent your estranged spouse from accessing your e-mail account and reading your e-mail? The remedy is simple. CHANGE YOUR PASSWORD. In fact, change all your passwords for important online accounts, including all e-mail accounts, banks and financial institutions, social networking sites, including Facebook, and access to your work computer. When changing your passwords, make sure your new passwords are complex, secure and cannot be easily figured out by your spouse. Random passwords are key.

You should also make sure that you do not use a home computer to communicate with your attorney, paramour or discuss your pending divorce with third parties. Through the use of tracking software, it may be possible for your spouse to access these communications. An argument could also be made that you had no expectation of privacy if you transmitted this information using a shared family computer and, as a result, information stored on or obtained from that computer could possibly be used by your spouse in a divorce proceeding.

Notwithstanding the perceived potential benefits, I advise all my clients NOT to access their spouse's e-mail or other online accounts without their permission. Doing so could possibly result in criminal sanctions and, from a practical standpoint, the information obtained from the e-mail search would likely be inadmissible in Court. I, in fact, refuse to accept such materials from my clients if I believe they were wrongfully obtained.

Remember, however, that any e-mails you send could make their way to your estranged spouse's inbox in a legitimate manner. The "friend" you communicate or share some dirt with may not be as close to you as you think or may decide they, in turn, want to share the information with your spouse.

The important thing to remember is that material information regarding you and your life may be easily accessible online and shared with your estranged spouse. Protecting your private information is key during divorce litigation.

1 comment:

Family Law Portal said...

It's amazing how much email and social media is being used in family law. In Australia, it's estimated that photos/comments from social media are being used to discredit people in 20% of Family Court proceedings. In the UK, a spouse’s behaviour on Facebook is now cited in a third of UK divorces in which unreasonable behaviour was a factor. Unfortunately, email and social media's impact on family law does not stop there - as they are now a major tool for divorce-related bullying (e.g. continuing communication, posting nasty messages, hacking accounts, etc). More: Family & The Law (Family Law Portal)