Digital Assets in a Texas Divorce
The digital era has brought with it unexpected complications in the area of family law. Divorcing couples now have a whole new set of assets to divide up. Digital and virtual assets can be hard to identify, quantify, and determine to whom they should go. Moreover, the interconnectedness of our digital lives can create additional complications in trying to fully separate from a spouse. A qualified Houston complex marital estate lawyer can help you identify and retain your digital and virtual assets in a Texas divorce.
What Are Digital or Virtual Assets?
Digital assets are pieces of property that exist only in the digital, rather than physical, space. These can include things such as: email and social network accounts; websites; domain names; digital media like pictures, music, movies, and books; or credit card or travel rewards points, among other digital items.
Even though these assets are intangible, they still count as part of the marital estate. They are therefore subject to characterization, valuation, and division in a divorce. Divorcing couples might have thousands of dollars or more in digital assets, including things like virtual currencies and items in online games or other virtual communities.
How Are Digital Assets Dealt with in a Divorce?
Digital assets are like any other marital property: The first step is to identify what assets are at stake. Do you or your spouse own music or movies on iTunes? Do you have a shared online gaming account? Do you have family pictures stored in the cloud? Items that have a quantifiable monetary value, such as music, movies or rewards points, can be treated like other property – added to the marital estate and divided up. Websites or blogs with revenue streams will likewise be treated like other business assets or ventures; e.g., by considering who started the blog, who is the primary contributor, and whether the spouse who does not get control should be owed any reimbursement for value that they contributed. Some items will be more difficult to value, such as items in online games, but they should not be overlooked: Some people have accounts with thousands of dollars of value in such virtual goods, which can be demonstrated by way of virtual marketplaces.
Items of sentimental value, like family photos, are harder to quantify but will be part of the divorce negotiations as well. Owned digital assets like photos and movies have the advantage of being copiable, so that neither spouse has to ultimately part with them.
Separating Your Digital Life from Your Ex-Spouse
Digital assets can create a new host of problems even when they are shared or copiable items. Spouses often have shared online accounts such as emails, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play or other digital stores, and cloud storage accounts. Spouses with a shared iTunes account, for example, should plan to create new, separate accounts, and copy any owned music or movies to external hard drives where possible. The same goes for photos and home movies stored on the cloud; it would likely be problematic to keep using shared accounts where ex-spouses would continue to see each other’s texts or social media messages on phones and other devices. It might not be possible to keep access for both spouses for things like movies or music purchased on Amazon or iTunes, as they are generally linked to a single account. As a result, such digital property may have to be divvied up just like physical property. Spouses on good terms may be able to compromise and continue to use certain shared accounts for music and movies. Divorcing spouses should consult with their attorneys to identify all virtual assets and work through how best to value and divide them based on the circumstances and relationship of the divorcing parties.