A few months ago in a Marion County courtroom, two parents were in a contempt of court hearing over child support. The father of the 12 year old boy said he couldn’t afford to pay his child support because he had no money, no job, and no transportation to get to a job. He told the General Magistrate that his car was sitting in his front yard, in need of repairs he couldn’t afford. The mother then presented pages she’d printed off of Facebook. On these pages, the father had posted status updates about going out and closing down a bar, spending several hundred dollars on a new smart phone, and getting the parts he needed to fix his car.
The General Magistrate accepted the status updates the mother had printed, and used those in determining that the father was in contempt of court. He was ordered to make an immediate payment before leaving the courthouse to avoid suspension of his driver’s license and that was the end of that.
Technology is wonderful. Social networks like Facebook and Google+ are useful tools for staying in touch with friends and family that are far away, or even just for keeping in touch with those who are nearby but so busy that you don’t have a lot of time to get together. Some parents use online dating sites to meet new mates, and the variety of forums that you can join to discuss anything from parenting issues to politics is almost overwhelming.
But these same tools that seem so fun and useful can also be used against you.
Another example of this is another father in Ocala. He doesn’t work, so he is frequently in court being held in contempt for not paying child support. A few years ago, his ex-wife discovered a Yahoo! Personals profile he’d created – one in which he claimed to be working from home, making close to $50,000 a year, and also claimed to have no children. After this man had told the Marion County family court judge he had no income, and no way to get a job, his ex-wife asked the judge if she could show the judge this personal profile she’d found and printed. The judge accepted the document and asked the father to explain himself. He stammered and stuttered until the judge told him that he really had no choice: he either had to admit to lying in court, or lying online. Either way, his credibility was shot. He eventually admitted to lying online.
With stories like these, you might be tempted to want to dig up some online dirt on your ex to help your case against them. Or you might be concerned that they could dig something up on you. Either way, it helps to keep a few simple things in mind.
If you want to dig up dirt on your ex:
Remember that not all judges will accept it. There are some Marion County family court judges who will accept print outs of online findings. But there are also a few who will not. Be prepared for the possibility that your judge will not accept it. See if you can find some offline verification in case the judge doesn’t accept it.
Be sure it’s your ex. The internet is global; you’re almost certain to find at least one other person with the same exact name as your ex. So make sure it’s really him or her. Try to confirm it with a photo associated with what you’ve found, as that will be the best proof that it is your ex. Otherwise, look for other identifying information that might prove it’s him/her – an address, mention of your kids by name, anything that would lend strong credence to the idea that this is your ex. If you can’t find something, use extreme caution in using what you’ve found – your ex will most likely claim it isn’t them, and if you have no proof to refute that, the judge might take their side and decide not to use it.
Make it relevant. Finding proof that your ex cheated on you during your marriage isn’t going to have any bearing on a judge’s decision about whether or not they should be held in contempt for failure to pay child support. What it will do is make you look petty and vindictive, and hurt your own credibility. Make certain that what you find is relevant to your purpose. Finding mention of a job, of a stash of money in a child support hearing is relevant. Finding something that proves your ex is dishonest can help your case by showing he/she will lie and therefore the judge should take what your ex says with a grain of salt.
Use a screenshot. When possible, take a screenshot of what you’ve found and print that. This ensures that it prints with the date you found it, which will prove that it was there if he/she deletes it between when you found it and when you go to court to use it.
Things to remember about your own online dirt:
Anything you post online can be fair game. Facebook has general privacy settings, and the ability to customize each individual post. Google+ makes you specifically choose which circles you want to see what you post. These settings can give you a false sense of security about what you say online. Remember that accounts can be hacked, and friends can be disloyal. Ocala and Marion County is relatively small compared to other places, and it’s entirely possible that someone you know could show your ex the things you post.
Usernames don’t hide you. Many people tend to use variations of the same username over the years. What started out as “Girl123” may evolve to “LilGirl123”, but if it’s similar, it can help your ex figure out it’s you. It’s also a good idea to consider changing usernames on websites you used while you were still with your ex. Even if you think they didn’t know you used that site, they just might – and that knowledge can allow them to see the things you say with that username. Avoid using your name, your children’s name, any of your birthdates, information that gives away location in your username (for example, use “Floridaparent” rather than “Ocalaparent”), as well as terms that indicate your profession or hobbies you’re passionate about.
Pictures can be worth more than 1,000 words. Pictures can be used to portray you in a negative light. A photo from the only party you attended last year can be used to try to prove you spend all your time partying. One photo may not be enough to prove anything, but get enough of them together, and combine them with a persuasive ex, and you might spend quite a bit of time trying to prove that you’re not the party type. Be careful which photos you post, and make sure that you set your social networks to require your approval before photos your friends tag you in go public.
Remember guilt by association. Criminal courts require proof beyond a reasonable doubt to convict. When it comes to custody battles and child support, the standard is much lower. If your ex discovers online proof that your live-in mate does drugs in the home or has a violent criminal history, or that the babysitter you trust to watch your kids has a drinking problem, these are things that they can present to a judge to try to prove why you should not have custody, and sometimes to restrict or deny visitation. Make sure the people you develop relationships with don’t have issues that could present problems for you in court – or at least that they don’t talk about their issues online where it could come back to haunt you later.
Online tools and resources can be fun, informative and useful. But they can just as easily become something negative and hurtful. Use caution in what you do online so that it can’t come back to bite you later.