Top family lawyer David James explores some of the potential legal pitfalls of social media.
Ask people about the possible legal risks of using Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, and the same themes come up again and again: employers finding embarrassing selfies, inopportune comments taken out of context, the possibility of identity theft.
Now, though, family lawyers are warning of a new danger.
Studies have shown that, increasingly, couples going through divorce proceedings are seeking to use evidence gathered online in court to show their ex-partner’s lifestyle and financial circumstances.
There are claims that Facebook is actually causing divorces and break-ups. Although this may not, strictly speaking, be true, the danger is that a person’s financial ‘sins’ can be tracked down online.
Often, a divorce involves the two ex-partners trying to give a different impression of the state of their finances, and the Internet can prove to be a very useful tool in gauging whether someone is really telling the whole truth.
A quick online search can provide information to assist a good divorce lawyer or forensic accountant in building up a picture of someone’s financial situation. This can include finding details of a spouse or partner’s business sponsoring a large public event, when you’ve previously been led to believe that the business is doing badly. Or, something like a planning application may indicate that your ex-partner has a property that you were perhaps unaware of.
Living a wealthy lifestyle will leave an imprint on the web, and whether this involves holidays or extravagant spending, or even charitable donations, the chances are that, somewhere, there will be an online record.
There will also probably be evidence of any associates with whom the spouse is tied to – not only romantically, but more importantly, commercially too.
Anyone going through a divorce will understandably want to have the best possible financial outcome, and the courts will seek to achieve a fair result for both parties.
Whilst the court may be willing, in some circumstances, to possibly “ring fence” certain financial assets, meaning they are effectively excluded from the calculations on divorce, some people have sought to resort to hiding what they have, so there appears to be less capital available to be divided.
This is where online information becomes very important, owing to the fact that any real wealth has a way of leaving an online “footprint”. Cars, houses, holidays and even charitable donations can be easily traceable on the Web.
A good matrimonial solicitor and forensic accountant will find those footprints, and follow them to wherever the money or property is hidden.
Divorce should be a transparent process. Once a couple provides an honest account of their earnings, property and any other wealth to their lawyers and the courts, they can come to a fair decision which allows them both to move on with their lives. Trying to manipulate the division by deliberately failing to disclose certain assets has always been deceitful; now, in the age of the Internet, it is inherently unwise.
Going beyond a quick online search, there are the business registries such as Companies House in the UK and its international equivalents and applications to credit agencies for records that can give a forensic accountant a trail to follow.
Downloading and understanding the available accounts can sometimes provide a valuable piece of information that the spouse is unaware of. Who owns the company? What assets does the company own? How long has it been since company property was revalued? What are its debts? What profit is the company making each year? The amount of information that can be gleaned often comes as a surprise to both parties.
Another important source of information is foreign-language websites. People tend to forget that the Internet isn’t just in English, and business activities in other countries will be captured somewhere in the online world, especially as many overseas jurisdictions have different standards when it comes to the storing and sharing of data, leading to the potential discovery of offshore interests that a spouse or partner may be desperate to hide.
Using the financial information that a spouse must legally provide in a divorce process, matrimonial solicitors and forensic accountants can develop an in-depth financial and personal picture of the spouse by looking through their links and associations, building up a real understanding of their assets, as well as the values of those assets. That way, there is a solid basis for preparing a settlement proposal which is truly fair.
Most people might be worried about evidence of their past social activities being found on Facebook, and rightly so. However, increasingly, the real story in the world of online information is that it is no longer possible to get away with giving an inaccurate picture of your financial situation to your ex-partner.
You can be sure that one way or another, any financial misdeeds, exaggerations, white lies or outright fabrications will be found out – and that could make all the difference to your bottom line.
David James is a Director with Cardiff’s Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice, the largest specialist family law firm in Wales