Justice

Getting Divorced In The Facebook Era

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On Monday, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge allowed a woman to serve divorce papers to her estranged husband of six years through a private Facebook message.

Ellanora Baidoo, a 26-year-old nurse got a judge’s approval to serve her husband Victor Sena Blood-Dzraku, a drifter with no fixed address or employment, through a private Facebook message because it was the only way she could reach him.

The decision made headlines for it’s novelty and ultimate inevitability. After all, we use Facebook — and Facebook encourages this — for literally everything else in life, including paying back a friend for buying dinner.

But even though it wasn’t the first time the social network was used to conduct legal business, the landmark case exposed how much technology has fundamentally changed the way people get divorced — for better or worse.

When James McLaren, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML), who practices in South Carolina, first heard about the decision, he thought, laughing, “You gotta be kidding me! Then I read it and it’s quite well reasoned. It really adapts the procedural part of divorce to the technology of social media where we are now.”

“Think about the evolution of Facebook, it didn’t start that long ago. Now it’s part of the fabric of our society,” McLaren said. “To think it could become a part of the legal system. It’s pretty unbelievable.”

Divorce laws vary by state, and many states discourage or ban the use of modern and electronic communication as a means to serve someone divorce papers.

“FedEx is a reasonable means to send [divorce papers]. But in many states you can’t send it that way or via fax or via email,” McLaren said. “We went from these traditional methods, jumped over readily accepted commercial means and went to service via Facebook.”

But New York ruling doesn’t mean that getting divorced is as simple as pinging an ex and attaching the legal papers — it’s an absolute last resort.

No matter where someone lives, dissolving a legal union is time-consuming and expensive. And if a spouse runs off or is estranged, it costs extra to track them down on top of thousands of dollars already spent on lawyer, court and filing fees.

Baidoo hired a private investigator to find her husband and wasn’t able to serve papers to a relative, employer or his residence. Her next step was to take out an ad in the New York Daily News posted once a week for three weeks for a $1,000, according to the court’s decision.

That cost is prohibitive with little guarantee of the person seeing it. “In New York, you have to realize you can’t just do it. It’s an alternative when all of the other means fail,” said Andrew Spinnell, the New York City divorce attorney who argued that his client Ellanora Baidoo be allowed to serve her husband on Facebook.

“In reality, no one is going to notice [an ad in the paper], but most people check their Facebook messages everyday.”

The case seems both ridiculous and overdue as Facebook has been entangled in many disputes, not the least of which being the source for getting divorced. There’s little proof of causation between Facebook and divorce but how spouses behave on social media has been a driving point for infidelity accusations or evidence of lying in many divorce proceedings.

Carolyn Goodman, a divorce attorney in Washington, D.C., who primarily deals with negotiated settlements, said many of her clients come with social media evidence in hand, which can make things worse.

“Finding out a spouse has another relationship from Facebook, email, Instagram, or text messages is common whereas before people didn’t start finding out about that until much later,” she said. “And sometimes people read a little more into things than they are.”

Goodman agrees with the New York judge’s decision and said it was time law caught up with technology. But while the ruling makes it easier for someone to contact an elusive spouse, it doesn’t make it easier to get divorced with social media bringing its own unique complications that need consideration going forward.

“Social media can make it more difficult for people when a relationship ends. It causes people in some ways to be really tracking and almost stalking their spouses online when their spouse may be unaware of this,” Goodman said. That adds to the emotional distress of getting a divorce online where a history of the relationship lingers as a constant reminder of what was, making the end of the relationship very public, she said.

Beyond the emotional toll, serving divorce papers via social media isn’t a panacea and doesn’t guarantee things will go smoothly.

Most divorces involve divvying up assets such as cars, a house, bank accounts and other financial holdings, Goodman said, and if a spouse walks away or disappears it’s usually because there isn’t money to split.

There’s also the problem of whether the account is deleted before the divorce papers get served.

In terms of the New York case, AAML president James McLaren wondered “What if [the husband] closed his account in the meantime? What happens if he appears and contests the service now or later,” arguing that he wasn’t properly notified, he said. “The guy is clearly just messing with his wife. It’s not logical or productive. If she gets remarried, what if he contests the original divorce for lack of jurisdiction?”

Right now, there are a lot of unanswered questions, but McLaren is confident: “It’ll get sorted out. The law moves very slowly but this action was a pretty big leap.”

Ellanora Baidoo and her attorney Andrew Spinnell verified, to the judge’s satisfaction, the account belonged to her husband Victor Sena Blood-Dzraku. On behalf of his client, Spinnell will send three messages over the course of the three weeks to Blood-Dzraku’s account and follow up with a phone call, text or voice message.

The first Facebook message didn’t get a response, but Spinnell said Blood-Dzraku responded this week, “probably because he saw his face in the paper.”

In the event Blood-Dzraku deletes his Facebook account or is unresponsive, Spinnell said it will be up to the judge to decide whether to go forward.

“That might cause an issue. If he shut his account down the second week, I would have to go back to court and ask if two weeks of notification was enough,” he said.

Despite the precedent setting ruling, Spinnell doesn’t think his client will break away cleanly: “He’s a liar. He’s lied repeatedly throughout the marriage. I don’t think he’s going to consent.”