Can You Sue for Defamation in a Divorce?

Hossein Berenji, Sep 20, 2017

Family law controversies can be complicated. Tensions and emotions often run high. It may not be uncommon for one spouse or parent to say or write something negative about the other. Many times, these statements are considered to be a normal part of a divorce, alimony hearing, or child custody battle.

Hurtful or untrue statements are just a normal byproduct of a messy legal battle. When do those harmful statements become defamatory? When can a spouse or parent pursue civil damages for what the other has said? If your spouse or co-parent has said or written something defamatory about you, and you may be able to recover compensation through a personal injury lawsuit.

What is Defamation?

First, it is important to understand what defamation is. In California, a communication is considered to be defamatory if it is false and damages the reputation of another person. However, a defamatory statement is more than just any lie. Rather, it is an intentional lie that causes another person to suffer a specific harm. A defamatory statement that is written is considered libel. A defamatory statement that is spoken is considered slander.

Elements of a Successful Civil Defamation Lawsuit in California

A successful lawsuit for libel or slander will require proving each element of the alleged offense. In California, you may be able to recover compensation for a defamatory statement if you prove each of the following things.

  • The communication was false. You cannot sue someone for telling the truth about you. The communication, statement, or writing must have been false.
  • The statement must be published. This essentially means that a hurtful statement must be made to a third party. A communication can be published in a lot of ways. It can be spoken and heard by a third party, printed in a newspaper or magazine, or spread through an email or social media network.

When Are Hurtful Statements Privileged?

Defamatory statements must also not be subject to privilege. What is privilege and when does it exist? Privilege is generally defined as a “special right, advantage, or immunity” that is specifically awarded to a “particular person or group of people.” When you are involved in a family law matter, such as a divorce or child custody battle, you may have a special privilege. It protects you from liability for defamation for the things you say during the course of your legal battle. Others involved in your family law matter will also have this special privilege. This means that you may not be able to sue a spouse or co-parent for defamation for the statements they make as a part of the legal proceedings.

Why does privilege exist? First, when you make statements in a formal legal proceeding you are generally doing so under oath. You are required to tell the truth. A lawsuit based on defamation can only exist when a false statement is made. Ideally, any statements made in court or in a legal proceeding would be truthful.

Second, legal proceedings need to be based on the truth. If anyone could be sued for what they said in court there would be little motivation to offer testimony. Providing a shield from liability allows witnesses and parties to be candid and open.

This privilege exists for statements made in court and in the ordinary course of a legal proceeding. You may be able to file a lawsuit for libel or slander against your ex-spouse for statements made on their own time. For example, if your spouse or child’s other parent writes and posts a lie on social media it may be grounds for a lawsuit. This statement was made on his or her own time and not directly related to the legal proceedings.

Find Out If You Have a Case

Family law matters can cause one spouse or parent to say harmful things about the other. In some cases, these statements can be false and hurtful. If you have been the victim of slander or libel in your family law case you may be able to file a civil claim for damages.

However, if those statements were made in the course of the legal proceeding, your spouse or child’s other parent may be protected by qualified immunity. Only statements that are not subject to privilege can be the basis of a lawsuit.