This article was written by Hance | Wickham associate attorney Jonathan James.
It’s typical that a Texas legislative session results in some changes to the Texas Family Law code, and the 2015 session was no exception. One of the most significant changes had to do with the types of things a court is allowed to order in a Temporary Restraining Order (an injunction that is binding on one or both parties even before a hearing is held). These changes appear to be an attempt to catch up with the changing times, with new accommodations made to give online communications the same sort of protections and regulations that more traditional forms of communication receive.
Most of the counties in which we practice family law incorporate the language of the Texas Family Code as it relates to temporary restraining orders into “standing orders” to help set guidelines for couples entering a divorce. Collin County, Dallas County, Denton County, and Rockwall County all provide automatic standing orders when a petitioner files a Petition for Divorce, while Tarrant County does not.
Standing orders spell out important guidelines for a couple initiating a divorce, intended to keep the children, property, and even family pets (in Dallas County) from disruption.
Some of the orders are intended to safeguard against serious, desperate acts that could prove to be damaging to children and highly disruptive to divorce proceedings – for instance, a parent can’t move children out of Texas, withdraw them from school (unless both parents agree), or remove the children to a secret location.
Other orders prevent both parties from selling property, hiding assets, or a whole host of actions that might obscure a proper assessment of a couple’s assets and debts.
There are also standing orders that apply to decorum, instructing couples to maintain civility during the process, meaning no threats, no obscene language, and no communications meant to harass the other party.
The 2015 changes include electronic communications to applicable sections of the standing orders, and spells out certain protections that keeps parties from breaking into, altering, or misusing each other’s various electronic communication accounts, be it email or social media. The language is so up to date, it even specifies that accounts are protected whether the data be stored on hard drives or cloud storage!
First of all, I think standing orders are extremely helpful in divorce cases. While a great number of divorcing couples wouldn’t act in a way that would violate standing orders, some couples do react emotionally in a divorce case, and it’s useful to have the standing orders to help rein in one or both parties if their behavior crosses the boundaries that standing orders seek to establish.
They’re also a good tool to help establish how couples should treat each other and their children throughout the divorce. Obviously, arriving at a settlement outside of court requires both parties to be civil to one another, and if a divorce does end up in the courtroom, the judge will expect civility from both parties.
I also think it’s good that the state is addressing electronic communications and the complications that can arise there—and that many of the counties have adopted the legislature’s changes so quickly into their respective standing orders. Obviously, if a husband hacks into his wife’s email in the midst of a divorce, it’s akin to wiretapping and it’s illegal. But if the same husband goes to their shared computer and she’s got her email account up, he’s not technically wiretapping.
Now, with the new standing orders, he may in violation of a court order simply by opening or forwarding an email addressed to his wife. Even if the husband knows the wife’s password for an email or social media account, he could be in violation of a court order by using that password to gain access to his wife’s account.
While new cases and new forms of social media will test these newly-passed laws, the Texas Legislature is to be commended for attempting to address these forms of communication.
The new laws went into effect on Sept. 1, and Dallas and Denton Counties have already integrated the changes into their standing orders. I’ll be interested to see how the changes will impact couples in those counties going forward, as well as what new questions those changes might raise.