The Technology of Cheating

Website for affairs

If you live in North Carolina, you’ve probably known someone who has sued or been sued for the tort of alienation of affection.  Or you’ve at least heard of a jilted spouse who wants to sue the spouse’s lover.  According to Wikipedia (and they’re never wrong, right?), North Carolina is one of only 7 states that still allows lawsuits for alienation of affection.  This law has been around for a long time, has survived numerous attempts at repeal, and is used today far more often than you might expect.  Thus, in North Carolina an outsider who interferes in another’s marriage can be in some really hot water.  For decades, NC juries have awarded large sums to husbands and wives whose marriages were broken up by third parties.

Now, however, one plaintiff is trying to apply this old (many would argue outdated) law to very new technology — the dating-while-married website Ashley Madison, whose motto is “Life is short.  Have an affair.”  One North Carolina man is suing the website for alienation of affection and claiming that the online dating service aided his wife in finding her paramour.  Before any jilted spouses get big ideas about suing any person or business who facilitates or encourages an affair, however, they should know that the suit has little chance of succeeding.  For one thing, the legislature in 2009 passed an amendment that prevents spouses from suing businesses that play a role in extramarital affairs (hotels, restaurants, clubs…).  Plus, the website was merely a facilitator of the cheating, not the actual perpetrator.  If the plaintiff’s wife hadn’t met her boyfriend on Ashley Madison, couldn’t she have met someone on any other dating site?  Or any bar?

While this man’s lawsuit will most likely be dismissed, many North Carolinians successfully sue their cheating spouses’ lovers for alienation of affection.  In order to prove alienation of affection, they must show:

  1. That the couple was happily married and a genuine love and affection existed between them;
  2. That the love and affection was alienated and destroyed; and
  3. That the wrongful and malicious acts of the defendant caused the alienation of affection.

What do you think?  Is this type of lawsuit outdated?  Should we be able to sue those who facilitate or encourage the cheating, in addition to the actual person who does the cheating?

Other resources:

Keeping Text Messages for Court

Texting and Family Law

If you have been involved in a family law case (especially a custody dispute or a divorce where infidelity is an issue), your lawyer has probably talked to you about the importance of documenting everything.  I generally think, the more information you can gather, the better.  Yes, it will take some time for you or your lawyer to sort through stacks of details about your life looking for the relevant statements, dates, events, and documents.  Yes, it is a difficult way to live — cataloguing proof or otherwise documenting every little thing that happens that might have an impact on your case.  But when it comes to your property and especially your children, I like the “better safe than sorry” approach.

In some co-parenting situations, calm and effective communication can be difficult.  These parents often resolve to communicate primarily through email and text messages.  We all know how to keep an email as documentation of communication, but how do you keep a text message for use as potential evidence in court?  Here are a few options for documenting communication by text message:

  • Take screen shots of the messages:  search online to find out how to take a screen shot of exactly what appears on your particular type of phone; save the image and print it out to keep or show your lawyer;
  • SMS Backup+:  this is a free app for Android users that automatically backs up your text messages and phone log to your Gmail or Google calendar;
  • Email My Texts:  this is another Android app that costs $4.90 to download and allows you to email, print, and save all of your text messages, as well as export them to a number of other services, like Dropbox or Evernote;
  • iPhone users:  unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a reliable app to simply backup or email your iPhone texts like the Android users have; check out this article for advice on how you can keep and access the files that archive your text messages.

Unfortunately for iPhone users, it seems to be a bit more work to document text message conversations than it is for Android users.  With an important issue like custody on the line, though, it will likely be worth it.  Talk to your lawyer about what types of information and communication you should be documenting, and stay on top of it!

Beating the Odds in Remarriage

Remarriage statisticsMost Americans have probably heard that the national divorce rate is somewhere between 40 and 50 percent.  We’re used to that scary number.  But many who haven’t been through a remarriage might not know that the divorce rate for remarriages is even higher.  I recently encountered an article in the Huffington Post, citing a divorce rate of 60 to 67 percent for second marriages (at least one spouse married before) and 70 to 73 percent for third marriages (at least one spouse married twice before).  Those are rough odds, and to the uninitiated, it may seem counterintuitive.  Those who remarry should be older and wiser, and should know themselves and their needs better, right?  They’ve been down the road of marriage before, so shouldn’t they understand the stakes and the pitfalls?

All of that may be true, but there are also a number of complicating factors that uniquely threaten remarriages.  The HuffPost article addresses a number of psychological factors that may play a role, such as fear of being alone and looking for a quick fix after a difficult divorce.  Possibly the biggest complication is dealing with children and challenging exes on one or both sides of the new family.  Those who have successfully blended families know that it takes a lot of love, patience, and hard work.

The point of knowing and sharing the statistics about remarriage is not to throw cold water on post-divorce relationships or second and third marriages.  It’s simply to note how important it is to think about the realities of remarriage for you and your situation.  What factors in your life are likely to make things different this time around?  How will you and your next spouse deal with those things together?  Nobody wants to visit a divorce lawyer at all, much less for more than one case in a lifetime.  It takes courage and thoughtfulness to start over, so take your time and address the challenges honestly so that you can beat the odds the next time around.

Be Careful About What You Remove From Social Media, Too

Social Media Perils

There is a seemingly endless stream of problems that can arise from social media and technology when it comes to divorce and family law.  If you have spoken with a family lawyer lately, you likely heard a warning to be very careful about what you put on the internet.  That is an important rule of thumb always, but especially if you are involved in a divorce or custody case.  It is also important to be careful about how you search for information about the activities of a spouse or others.

This is becoming such an important topic that a few hundred North Carolina family lawyers recently met in Greensboro specifically to learn about the criminal and civil liabilities that can arise for ourselves and our clients from various digital activities.  The program addressed a number of the topics, some of which I’ve addressed in earlier blog posts, but one important additional topic is “spoliation.”  Spoliation of evidence is the legal term for when someone deletes or destroys evidence that is potentially relevant in a case.

If a party in a divorce or other family law matter intentionally deletes social media posts, for example, because they might be damaging to the case, that person might be guilty of spoliation.  The party, and his or her lawyer if the lawyer advised it, can be sanctioned or otherwise in trouble with the court.  At the beginning of a case, a lawyer will often send a “spoliation letter” to the opponent or anyone else who has relevant evidence, warning them to preserve the evidence that must be turned over.  This is another reason to be very cautious about what you share online — you may not be able to delete it in the future without causing significant problems.

So, if you are concerned about things you may have posted online in the past, be very careful about “cleaning up” your Facebook page or deleting old Tweets and emails.  You may cause yourself bigger problems if you get caught destroying evidence.  Think twice before you post anything online, and if you are in the middle of a case and are worried about your social media presence, talk to your lawyer about your concerns.

Wrapping Up on Snooping: Nanny Cams

Nanny CamsTo wrap up this series of blog posts on spying on your spouse, let’s talk about “nanny cams.”  The use of secret video recording, or at least discussion of it, is prevalent today.  You might be wondering then, given all of the legal limitations on other forms of snooping that we’ve discussed, how nanny cams can be legal.  Using hidden cameras, however, does not in fact violate the wiretapping statutes that we have addressed in other blog posts.

The use of nanny cams is in fact permissible, because the rules about video recordings are different from rules about voice and telephone recordings.  Our federal and state wiretapping laws only apply to the interception of oral communication.  This is why nanny cams (the legal ones, anyway) do not have audio recording features.  It is generally okay to record video without an audio feed in your own home, without the consent of the person being video taped.  If you own the property, or have permission from someone who owns the property, it is most likely permissible to place an inconspicuous video recorder to determine what is going on in your home.

Summing Up:  Snooping on Your Spouse

We have addressed a number of ways in which you might be legally able to check up on your spouse’s activities.  With all of the technology available to us today, it is easy to indulge your insecurities or give in to your suspicions and start checking up on your loved one.  Sometimes snooping is reasonable and warranted; sometimes it is unjustified and invasive.  Just because you could legally snoop through some of your spouse’s communications, does not mean that it is the right or healthy thing for you or your relationship.  Before you start spying, think it through — what are the likely effects on you, your family, and your relationship if someone (especially your spouse) finds out that you distrust your spouse enough to start snooping?

Snooping should only be undertaken with care, from both a legal perspective and a personal one.  Legally, there are limitations and complex considerations involved with some types of snooping.  To be certain that you do not violate federal or state statutes and expose yourself to civil or criminal liability, it is always best to talk with a lawyer before spying on your spouse.  Also, just because a method of getting information is legal, does not mean that the information you gather can be used in court.  So take into consideration whether the breach of trust will be worthwhile if you cannot prove in court what you find out from snooping.  Finally, consider your personal well-being and the strength of your relationship.  If your gut is telling you that even legally permissible snooping is a bad idea in your situation, listen to it!  Think honestly about the source of your doubts and how you and your partner can address them…and hopefully avoid the need for a divorce lawyer altogether.

Recording Your Spouse

Secret Recording

In our digital age, tape or voice-activated recorders are cheap, easy to use, and easy to hide.  But can you hide one in your spouse’s car or office to get evidence of cheating?  No!

In North Carolina, it is illegal to record a conversation without the knowledge and consent of at least one of the parties being recorded.  So you may record your own conversation with your spouse, because you have consented to the recording.  You may not, however, record the conversation of two unsuspecting, unconsenting parties.  Hiding that voice-activated recorder in the car could be a very costly violation of wiretapping statutes, plus any evidence of an affair couldn’t be used against your spouse anyway.

In addition to evidence of cheating, you might want to record your own conversations with your spouse to provide evidence of problems that occur during custody exchanges, or evidence of domestic violence.  Just remember that only conversations in which you are involved are fair game.

One Exception:  Vicarious Consent

There is one exception to this rule, which allows you to record conversations between your children and another party.  In certain situations, you may give consent on behalf of your children, but only when you are concerned about the safety of your children.

If, for example, you suspect that your spouse is abusing your children, you may record conversations between the children and your spouse.  You must be prepared, however, to defend the recording in court by showing that you had a legitimate reasonable fear for your children’s safety.  Your word or simple suspicion will not be enough — you need evidence to back up your fear.

Bottom line:  You can only use a recording device to record a conversation to which you are a party; it is illegal to record conversations of others without their consent.  In limited circumstances, it may be permissible to record the conversations of your children with others.

GPS Tracking

GPS Tracking

Another form of snooping that some suspicious spouses might be tempted to employ is placing a GPS tracking device on the spouse’s car to track his or her whereabouts.  But before you start fantasizing about spying like Jack Bauer (or Sydney Bristow, for the ladies), it is unclear right now whether this form of spying on your spouse is permissible.  On this subject, the law has not yet caught up with technology.

In US v. Jones last year, the Supreme Court addressed whether the government may use GPS devices hidden on vehicles to track the activities of criminal suspects.  The Court found that using such a device does constitute a search under the 4th Amendment, so police are generally required to obtain a warrant in order to place a GPS device on a suspect’s vehicle.

When it comes to you and your spouse, some lawyers disagree about whether the Jones decision would apply to using a GPS device to track a family member.  There is no law on this subject yet, and it is unclear how courts will rule.  In the family law context, the question boils down to two issues:  (1) ownership and (2) expectation of privacy.

Ownership

If you own the car, it is titled in your name, and you are not separated from your spouse, then you most likely have legal authority to install a GPS device on the car.  The same would be true if you wanted to track your spouse using a phone GPS app — if you own the phone, it is registered under your name, and you are not separated from your spouse, you can probably install the tracking app without being in any legal trouble.

Expectation of Privacy

If, however, you do not own the car or phone, it is not titled in your name, or you are separated from your spouse, then your spouse may very well have an expectation of privacy in his or her car and phone.  While North Carolina courts have not specifically addressed this issue, you should think twice about using GPS under these circumstances because your spouse may have grounds to sue you for several torts.  You could potentially be liable for money damages for invasion of privacy or trespass if you violate your spouse’s expectation of privacy.

Both technology and the law are constantly changing.  If you are thinking of using a GPS device to track your spouse, talk to a lawyer first about where the law stands at the time and how your actions might affect you and your legal position in the future.