Divorce law isn’t like criminal law. During a divorce, you can be penalized for bad or thoughtless behavior, even if it isn’t illegal. Evidence about your character and personal ethics can be used to determine everything from child custody arrangements to deciding who is at fault in a divorce. And it isn’t just alcoholic sociopaths who need worry; completely ordinary, normal people can have a picture or other piece of evidence taken out of context and turned against them in divorce litigation.
Nobody is perfect, and we all have our personal struggles, moral failings, and moments of indiscretion. So to keep your moral character in the best standing possible in the eyes of the court, here are some tips that will keep your reputation from being unfairly tarnished:
Character tip #1: You aren’t divorced until the papers are finalized
Know that just because you and your spouse have separated, this doesn’t mean the marriage is officially over. You are still recognized as married by law. So engaging in questionable behavior, engaging in substance use, carrying on sexual affairs, and what you post online can all be admissible as evidence in court to determine fault in a divorce.
Character tip #2: Privacy is suspended during a divorce
Know that divorce lawyers can request a subpoena to get access to email accounts or other private items that may provide evidence. So never badmouth your spouse or discuss the divorce in electronic communication, and tell friends and family not to do the same in their communication with you.
Character tip #3: Acknowledge any past problems while taking steps to clean up your act
“Bad behavior increases during bad times,” observes Kelly McClure, a board-certified family lawyer. “I have seen a dramatic increase in people turning to alcohol, drugs, affairs, gambling, and pornography as a way to escape their problems, and that behavior has negatively impacted their marriages. When I represent the person with these issues, I immediately try to get them into recovery or counseling so it doesn’t do any further damage to their case. …Bad behavior can be a factor in how a judge will divide assets. It also plays a role in custody and visitation.” (D Magazine, Oct. 2011, p. 132)
The good news is that most judges are focused on the future, not the past. They may be willing to overlook such things if the person involved is putting forth an honest effort to resolve these problems.
Character tip #4: Play fair with money
Don’t attempt to hide assets. Judges will not be pleased if they catch you doing this, and you can expect that every piece of financial information will be gone over with a fine-tooth comb. Don’t start racking up a massive amount of debt, either. A divorce is not the time to go on a personal spending spree with a joint account. All debt will eventually be divided, and if it appears as though you tried to “cash out,” a judge could hold you responsible for the full amount of debt incurred, and it won’t shine brightly on your character.
Character tip #5: Give up Facebook
Using any type of social media during a divorce is a risk in itself. There’s just too many ways to make a costly mistake. “Using social media when going through a divorce is a risk of post-custody litigation,” says family lawyer Sylvia Atkins. “We often recommend taking down Facebook pages and giving up Twitter for a while. There’s too much at stake.” (D Magazine, Oct. 2011, p. 132) The next section will elaborate on why social media can be such a problem.