United States: Facebook & Extramarital Affairs: Beware!

Last Updated: October 11 2011

With the advent of social networking sites such as Facebook, people are now able to reconnect with long-lost friends with just the click of a mouse. While many take advantage of Facebook's added convenience to make innocent connections with others, a growing number of people are using Facebook to reunite with old flames or to connect with those with whom they seek a romantic relationship. For a married person, this can be a real marriage disaster.

According to a 2008 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, one in five adults, many of whom are married, use Facebook for flirting. A British divorce website, Divorce-Online, recently reported that the term "Facebook" appeared in nearly 20% of the petitions it was handling last year, out of a case load of 7,000. Indeed, in one recent survey conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, two-thirds of lawyers said Facebook was the "primary source" of evidence in divorce proceedings.

So, does Facebook cause extramarital affairs? While the statistics referenced above may lead one to conclude that Facebook can cause extramarital affairs, there has yet to be evidence of such a causal link. In fact, the divorce rate has generally been stable during the last decade, and infidelity's role as the primary cause of around 25% of divorces has also remained stable, despite advances in the digital age. However, while there may not be a direct causal link between Facebook and extramarital affairs, it is abundantly clear that Facebook enables married individuals to cheat on their spouses in a manner that is easier than previous methods. No longer do you have to write a letter to your old flame, or obtain their phone number and place a call, hoping that an irritated spouse does not answer. Instead, an online Facebook account allows easy connectivity, fast replies, mail accounts that can be easily deleted, advanced privacy settings, and the seamless sharing of pictures and other information, at any hour of the day or night. Simply stated, Facebook can tempt a married individual to pursue an extramarital relationship that they otherwise would not have pursued. If that temptation is acted upon, the married individual can maintain the extramarital relationship online and delete the evidence at their convenience, all without the knowledge of their spouse.

Facebook's prevalence in extramarital affairs has, in turn, also led it to become a favorite evidence tool for divorce attorneys. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers recently reported that 81% of its members have used or faced evidence taken from Facebook or other social networking sites over the last five years. Such evidence can have dramatic consequences for a party in a divorce case. For instance, a mother's alienation of affliction claim may be bolstered by evidence of the father forcing the couple's son to "de-friend" his mother on Facebook. A parent going through a divorce may have their request for additional timesharing with their child denied if the court is presented with pictures from Facebook depicting the parent drinking or doing drugs when the child is in their care. A divorcing spouse seeking alimony based on a lack of earning capacity may have their request denied by the court if the requesting spouse's Facebook account is littered with pictures of the spouse spending their free time and money at restaurants and bars.

The law is currently unsettled regarding the use of information obtained from Facebook during a family law proceeding. However, recent case law should leave Facebook users, and their family law attorneys, wary. For instance, a judge in Pennsylvania recently found that the husband in a divorce case had to provide his wife's attorneys with his Facebook username and password, despite the husband's objection that his Facebook information was private and thus deserving of an evidentiary privilege. The judge rejected the husband's arguments, noting that the husband had no expectation of privacy because Facebook's End User License Agreement ("EULA") notes that all user accounts are subject to, and are at any time accessible by, third party administrators. Since the husband accepted Facebook's EULA when he signed up for Facebook, the court found an implicit waiver of confidentiality regarding the information contained on his Facebook page. While the Pennsylvania decision is not binding on Florida courts, it is most assuredly instructive.

Accordingly, a person should be extremely cautious with their Facebook account when going through a divorce. Among other things, a divorcing individual should refrain from denigrating their spouse on Facebook, and should generally avoid posting comments on their Facebook accounts that they would not want a judge to read in open court. Additionally, a divorcing spouse should abstain from posting pictures or videos that may be damaging to their divorce case, including pictures or videos that are sexually explicit or show the divorcing spouse binge drinking or doing drugs and exposing their children to the same. In sum, a divorcing spouse should exercise caution when sharing information on Facebook.

We continue to find technology changing human relationships. From readily accessible pornography to explicit social networking websites (including at least one aimed at assisting married individuals to enter into extramarital affairs) to Facebook, family life is no longer made up of the innocence of Ward and June Cleaver. Consequently, using good judgment and carefully monitoring your Facebook account during a family law proceeding can have a significant impact on your case.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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