Ending a marriage is never easy, but Facebook may be able to streamline the process. The de facto platform for communication for just about everyone, the social network could take on a new role as a place to serve divorce papers.
This week, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Matthew Cooper granted 26-year-old Ellanora Baidoo permission to serve papers to her elusive husband, Victor Sena Blood-Dzraku, via a Facebook message. People have served legal notices before using the network, but Baidoo’s case is one of the few in the U.S., and the first here that legally recognizes it as a means of official communication in divorce proceedings.
Sounds handy, but that doesn’t mean Facebook messages universally hold up as official courtroom communication. Right now, the rules vary—which may be bad for efficiency, but good for staving off any wacky ideas tech companies could possibly have to monetize our woes.
You Got Served
When it comes to serving court papers, procedures can differ across state and county lines. But in general, they can be rather picky about what constitutes proper legal notification.
Email or fax doesn’t legally count. In most cases, you have to either mail the documents to the last known address or physically hand them to the person (usually through a third-party service). If nothing else works, you can also publish the notice in the newspaper—which is what typically what happens when you can’t reach a deadbeat spouse.
Justice Cooper’s decision seems to put Facebook messages on par with postal mail, but with a caveat: As the judge wrote in the court documents, the “transmittal shall be repeated by plaintiff’s attorney to defendant once a week for three consecutive weeks or until acknowledged,” to prove that the papers have been received.
Invoking the social network was a last resort. Sena Blood-Dzraku’s whereabouts in the real world were unknown. But because he communicated with his estranged wife via phone calls and Facebook, Baidoo knew where to find him online. Her lawyer first attempted to serve Sena Blood-Dzraku through his client’s Facebook account last week. So far, he hasn’t responded.
Courts here and abroad have seemingly come around to the use of online tools. Back in 2008, an Australian court allowed a lender to serve property foreclosure notices to borrowers via Facebook. Last year, another New York Judge gave permission to a Staten Island to use Facebook to legally notify his ex-wife that he was terminating child support.
Friending The Courts
Facebook may have unwittingly made itself more appealing for courtroom communications. In trying to appeal to businesses and other users, it has implemented read receipts for messages and promised more secure messaging.
That may be enough for some judges at the state level, where divorce proceedings take place, but it’s not at all clear that all judges or lawmakers agree. As it is, some seem more concerned about electronic communication than others.
Facebook makes plenty of promises about security and privacy, but in light of recent well-publicized hacking incidents, worries run high. The social network (and any other messaging service) would have to lock their systems down enough to satisfactorily safeguard confidential court papers. It’s also hard to overlook issues like account abandonment or simple carelessness. Even if the message was marked as read, it’s all too easy to deny being served if a friend used the account, or if the Facebook account was accessed on a shared computer used by roommates or others.
Despite these complications, it’s likely just a matter of time before digital communications will become more legitimized in legal settings—just as they have in medical, banking and other areas. The upside is that replacing paper-bound documents with electronic notices can boost efficiency. The down side: It might not be long before Facebook, Gmail or other services try to monetize our legal scuffles.
Serving divorce papers electronically may sound convenient. But receiving them—possibly saddled with ads for attorneys, movers and dating services—seems profoundly less so.