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Divorce in the digital age

by Houston Divorce Attorney Sam M. “Trey” Yates, III

For better or worse, we are living in the digital age. Lightning-speed advancements in technology have enabled global electronic communications among us to accelerate to unbelievable levels of interconnectivity. Through expanding Internet bandwidth, increasingly powerful Smartphones and wireless devices of all shapes and sizes, internal cameras and thousands of apps beckon us to work, play, share and socialize in this electronic world.

We can now communicate not only with each other but with electrical systems and appliances in our homes via Smartphone, iPad or voice-activated “Artificial Intelligence (AI)” assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s SIRI. Our cars now have advanced, touch screen GPS systems, WIFI, and voice-activated AI assistants to help us find our way and stay connected while on-the-go. Yet, there are drawbacks to this capability.

If you are considering divorce, have separated from your spouse, or started the divorce process, all this digital technology can be problematic and challenging with regard to your privacy.

Spousal spying is a growing concern and can lead to major issues in a divorce. In addition, a disgruntled spouse with access to your online accounts, laptop or wireless devices can make unauthorized changes, withdrawals, or collect potentially damaging information to use against you in court or at the settlement table. So, it is important to protect yourself by taking steps immediately to protect your digital privacy now. Here are some steps to take:

  • Create a new email account immediately with a new password and new PIN to use during your divorce;
  • Create an inventory of all shared online accounts or device plans, and determine how to privatize each one; change the passwords and the access name of your home WIFI; close accounts where it makes sense and open new ones just to be safe; don’t forget your online access to insurance providers, home security systems with webcams, or any voice-activated systems, such as Amazon’s Alexa;
  • For best results, purchase a new Smartphone, iPad and/or laptop from a different service provider than who you are currently using; set up the account as an individual, and create all new passwords for supporting networks, software plans and accounts on these devices; make sure privacy settings are locked down; turn off location services; and if your children have Smartphones or other devices, including gaming consoles, ensure they cannot access your account from their devices;
  • Purchase strong security software for all your new devices at the time of purchase; for PCs, Bitdefender and MalwareBytes are two excellent security software products; for Apple devices or Macs, Norton Security and Norton Security VPN are essential to protect your devices;
  • Change the passwords on all online banking and credit card accounts; close or freeze joint bank accounts, and credit cards, if possible;
  • Change the passwords on all your shared online accounts immediately; examples include accounts with iCloud, iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, Comcast/Xfinity, AT&T Uverse, Microsoft, software programs, etc.; discuss with your attorney how this “content” should be divided in the divorce; these accounts typically may hold many family photos, and purchased music, movies and other entertainment that is likely to be considered community property; etc.;
  • Also change the passwords and logins connected to your IRAs, 401(k)s, retirement or investment accounts, and any healthcare provider or healthcare insurer’s online portal; tell your attorney that you are taking this action to protect the funds, and prevent your spouse from accessing the accounts; you will be responsible for any withdrawals of these accounts during the divorce process;
  • If available, enable two-step password verification on all of your online accounts; this usually entails new passwords, PINs, security questions with answers your spouse will not know and will require you to enter a special code sent via text or call to your new cell phone to gain access;
  • Take a vacation from all your social media accounts until the divorce is final; however, be sure to first change all your passwords on these accounts and tighten up security settings to protect the content that is already there; do not close these accounts;
  • Stop using any wireless devices, computers or laptops in your home that you may have shared with your spouse;
  • If you are living in the home, and your spouse has moved out, change the passwords on your home WIFI modem, login and security system,, or change providers and get new WIFI equipment that you can activate with new passwords and PINs; (make sure your children do not share this updated information or new passwords with the spouse who has moved out);
  • Open separate bank accounts under your name with a different financial institution; move half your joint savings or balances into your new account for “safe keeping” until the divorce is final; move your automatic payroll deposit to your new account immediately;
  • Secure Temporary Orders through your attorney in order to legally ensure civil boundaries such as to who gets to live in the family home during the divorce process, who pays what bills, how each spouse is expected to behave, etc.;
  • Open a separate line of credit or new credit cards in your name only; secure online access with new passwords, PINs and a two-step verification process;
  • Consider opening a post office box in order to receive mail from any of your new device or account providers, and/or any correspondence from your attorney or financial advisor that you want to keep private;
  • If you have a joint safe deposit box at your bank, consider closing it and moving the contents to another safe location until settlement discussions begin and the contents can be divided legally as part of the divorce decree.
  • Keep all documents regarding the divorce and your finances locked up in a safe place throughout the process;

This list may seem daunting, but taking these steps quickly will give you peace-of-mind and significant protection from potential harm from spousal hacking or spying. If you aren’t tech savvy, you can usually find a friend or family member to help you, or you can hire a computer consultant. Most technology providers can also help you set up new service, online security settings and passwords. Stay diligent, change passwords and PINs often, and focus on creating your next best life after divorce.

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