Parental Rights and Responsibilities in Vermont in the Age of Facebook
In a contested hearing held in Vermont Family Court, Mother and Father each request sole parental rights and responsibilities of their minor children.
Mother brings with her pictures of Father partying, drinking, and in compromising poses with the opposite sex, along with comments about how much he enjoys his night life, all posted on Facebook.
Father is appalled, first because he doesn’t know how Mother got those pictures, and second because he is afraid that they will negatively impact his case for custody of his children. He had never “friended” Mother on Facebook; so he thought he was safe.
This scenario is being played out more and more in the courts. Facebook has taken on an important role in many disputes, and lawyers have found Facebook postings can contain information that is useful in a court proceeding.
For those of you involved in divorce or parentage proceedings regarding parental rights, you can be rest assured that your mutual friends and your relatives—many of whom are your “friends” on Facebook, have taken sides, and some will inevitably take the other parent’s side in any custody dispute.
In addition, those “friends” who have taken the other parent’s side will be eager to let the other parent know about your postings on Facebook, especially the ones that make you look like a bad parent.
The first lesson is, then, for any litigant: imagine the item you are posting being presented as an exhibit in court—because if it is online, it will likely be easily accessible by your courtroom opponent. If you would be embarrassed to have a judge see what you are about to put online, do not click “post”.
Father’s second concern—the impact of the Facebook pictures and commentary on his case—turned out to be groundless. Why? Because under Vermont law, what your nightlife is like is not admissible in evidence unless it impacts your children.
Title 15, section 667 (a) provides as follows:
” Evidence of conduct of a parent not related to the [parental rights and responsibilities] factors in section 665 of this title shall only be admissible for the purposes of determining parental rights and responsibilities if it is shown that the conduct affects the parent’s relationship with the child.”
Thus if a parent goes out partying, that evidence will only be admissible if it can be shown that the children are neglected or otherwise adversely impacted as a result.
Facebook and other online social networks can be dangerous for any litigant. However, if the information is only about a person’s social life not related to the care of their children, the information will not be admissible in any custody action in Vermont.