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!

New to NC…and Divorcing

North Carolina divorce

It’s a pretty common scenario:  spouses living in another state decide to separate, and one or the other heads to North Carolina to be near family, a new job, the epicenter of college basketball, awesome bbq, beautiful mountains and beaches…there are lots of reasons to move to NC!  Whatever brings the spouse here, they often have some questions about how to proceed with the divorce:  Do we file for divorce in NC or the state where we lived together?  What do I have to do to get divorced in NC?

In North Carolina, by statute you must have lived in the state for at least six months as of the day you file your divorce complaint.  So, if you have recently come here from another state, you cannot file for divorce here under North Carolina law until you have lived here for six months.

You will also need to know that in North Carolina, obtaining a no-fault divorce requires that you and your spouse be separated for one year (actually technically a year and a day).  This means that you must be living under a different roof, with the intent to stay separated forever, for one full year before you may file for divorce.  So if your spouse still lives in the other state, it might be wise to check into the divorce laws there and see how the process compares to North Carolina.  If you have questions about where and how to file for divorce, call a family law attorney to talk about the specifics of your case.

Link

Coping with Parental Alienation

Parental alienation is behavior by one parent in a hostile co-parenting situation that causes “a child to be mentally manipulated or bullied into believing a loving parent is the cause of all their problems, and/or the enemy, to be feared, hated, disrespected  and/or  avoided.” (See www.paawareness.org for more info.)  Unfortunately, this damaging behavior is probably more common than most of us would expect.  Parents who are on the receiving end of this type of behavior can face very difficult circumstances.  Click the link above to read an article with thoughtful tips to help parents deal with parental alienation.

Do I Really Need a Divorce Lawyer?

Divorce Lawyer

Callers to my office ask this question pretty regularly.  People seem confused about when and whether they need a lawyer to help them through their divorce.  This is a fair question, given the proliferation of online sources for legal forms, documents, and information.  There are lots of places to research your questions, but you also risk “information overload.”  What if different websites seem reputable, but give conflicting information?

The first thing to remember if you research divorce law on your own is that divorce and family law issues are governed by state laws.  So while general information might be a good place to start, focus your research on your state’s law.  An article or blog post about divorce procedures in Nevada will not be very helpful in assessing your North Carolina divorce case.

In some cases, the spouses can certainly negotiate a settlement between themselves, without the input of lawyers.  When is this possible?  It truly depends on each individual case, but generally:

  • The shorter the marriage, the easier it may be to handle alone, because alimony is less likely to be an issue.
  • Few assets and no real estate holdings make it easier to split up without lawyers, because there is less physical “stuff” to fight over.
  • When there are no children involved, and thus no custody and child support issues involved, you may be able to handle things yourself.
  • If you and your spouse are friendly and cooperative enough to negotiate fairly between each other, then you may not need to involve lawyers.

If any ONE of the statements above does not apply to your case, however, then you would be wise to at least consult with a lawyer.  The more complicated your situation is, the more likely you are to need legal guidance and representation.  Ask yourself whether hiring a lawyer would add value to your case — would the financial, time, or peace of mind benefits outweigh what you spend on a lawyer?  When you have children, large assets, retirement savings, or own your own business, the answer is likely “yes.”

Cohabitation in NC

CohabitationCohabitation has become more common and more accepted in today’s society.  Statistics vary, but some sources claim as many as 60 percent of couples today live together before marriage.  People of different generations, backgrounds, and beliefs could argue all day about whether cohabitation is a good thing or not.  In the end, though, the practice is widespread enough that it is important for unmarried couples to think about the legal options and consequences when they decide to live together.

First off, the North Carolina law that made unmarried cohabitation illegal was struck down as unconstitutional by a superior court judge in 2009.  That decision is not necessarily binding on the whole state, however, so cohabitation may still technically be illegal.  It is unknown so far what other state courts would say on the matter, but the law against cohabitation (passed in 1805) is very unlikely to be enforced.

North Carolina does not recognize common law marriage, and there is no “legal status” associated with unmarried cohabitation.  Thus, a couple who lives together for many years and then breaks up, is still not usually entitled to the remedies associated with divorce:  equitable distribution of property and alimony.  Property is simply divided according to who owns title, and dividing personal property (i.e. furniture and valuables) can of course become very difficult for those whose lives and money have become so intertwined.

So how can cohabiting couples protect themselves and plan for the future?  First, don’t be afraid to talk about these issues before moving in together.  If you’re close enough to live together, you’re close enough to talk about protecting yourselves and each other financially if things end poorly.  Think of this just like betrothed couples discussing a pre-nup — it’s unpleasant to think about, but in some cases essential to protecting your interests.

Second, unmarried couples in North Carolina are free to make contractual agreements to establish rights and obligations should the relationship end.  So although unmarried couples are not granted the rights associated with marriage, they can make express agreements about dividing property in the event of a break-up, and the agreements will be honored by courts (as long as they are not based upon sexual services).  Before acquiring any substantial property interest together, it is very wise to make a written agreement about what would happen to the property if the relationship ended.  It may be a touchy subject, but it’s much easier to reach an agreement when you’re on good terms than it will be if things go south.

Note:  North Carolina still does not recognize same-sex marriage, so this advice applies to same-sex couples who consider themselves married, as well.  Although the law denies the privileges and rights of marriage to same-sex couples, there are ways to secure some of those rights through contract before (and after) joining your lives together. Goodness knows it’s not romantic, but it’s important!

Gray Divorce

Gray DivorceAccording to this New York Post article, the divorce rate for those over 50 has risen from about 10 percent in 1990 to 25 percent today.  The phenomenon is widespread enough that it even has a name:  “gray divorce.”  Experts theorize a number of reasons that this might be happening:

  • Longer, healthier life spans lead older people to believe there’s still time to start over
  • Older people are more likely to be on their second or third marriages, which are more prone to divorce
  • Higher expectations for marriage
  • Perception that it’s easier to get divorced than it was in the past
  • Less sense of shame about divorce makes couples less inclined to “stick it out” after the children have left the home.

Whatever the reasons for the trend, there are unique considerations that attorneys and their “gray divorce” clients should take into account.  Unlike many younger couples, for whom custody and child-rearing issues are often paramount, for older divorcees the most important issue is often assets, and the strategic division of those assets is very important for their retirement years.  It is important to divide pensions, insurance policies, and real estate, while hopefully ensuring that each spouse will have money to live on in the “twilight years.”

For couples with fewer assets, divorce can cause financial strain that may mean one or both spouses become partially dependent on their children or the government.  Couples over 50 are more likely to have estate planning already in place as well.  If so, it may be necessary to revisit wills, life insurance, trusts, bequests, and other end-of-life documents to ensure that assets and decision-making power will still be distributed according to each ex-spouse’s wishes after divorce.

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.

Link

6 Reasons Why You Need a Separation Agreement

This is a great article advising NC couples on why they are likely to need a separation agreement, even if they think it might be unnecessary.  Even if you and your (soon-to-be former) spouse expect to keep things civil and cooperative through your split, there may be important reasons to protect yourself with a separation agreement.