What Happens to Shared Online Accounts in a Divorce?

If your family is like mine, then you share pretty much everything. My wife is using my iTunes account for both her iPhone and iPad, we both enjoy a single Netflix account, and we each have our own playlists on Spotify. When you make the decision to share your online account with your spouse, you may be setting yourself up for problems down the road.

No one wants to get divorced, and I can only hope this never happens in our marriage. With roughly half of all marriages in the US ending in divorce, it is an unfortunate reality for many of us. Things don’t always work out, but what happens when does occur and you’ve been sharing online accounts? Do you or your spouse get the iTunes music library? Who gets the Steam games you’ve both enjoyed on the family computer? How do you divide Google Play apps or licenses for Adobe Creative Cloud?

Note: I am not a lawyer, nor do I guarantee any information in this article to be accurate in relation to the laws and statutes of your region. I recommend researching specific account terms and laws in your area before making a decision.

Simply put, the law has yet to catch up with a modern sense of ownership. We no longer own physical goods that can be passed between people. I can’t simply hand my wife her favorite songs on iTunes and keep the ones I like for myself. The account is tied to one person, and that person gets the benefit of whatever is on the account.

Most Licensed Content is Licensed to an Individual, Not a Family

Knowledge is your most powerful tool here. Knowing what is and isn’t covered by a company’s terms of service makes all the difference in the world. Most online cloud services do not allow (or at least support) married couples. You may (in the case of Adobe Creative Cloud) install a single program on two different computers, but that doesn’t mean Adobe wants you and your spouse using it. Licenses are, in majority, for a single individual.

What About Community Property States?

My wife and I live in Texas. This is a community property state where we share debts, income, and property rights. She has every bit as much of a right to whatever I own as I do toward her property. Our cars are both of ours by law, and that’s how things are done in Texas. It’s different in other states where each member of a marriage has their own individual property. It’s important to note here that licenses are not owned, they’re rented. You don’t own OS X Mountain Lion, Adobe Premiere Pro, or iPhone apps. You pay for the license to use them, and that license is still technically owned by the company selling it. At best, you have a legal right to use a product you paid for (unless that company revokes its right).

Because you don’t own that software, you don’t really have a perceived right to it. If the license was taken out in one person’s name, then that person is the one that gets to keep it when all is said and done. There are cases where licenses can be transferred, but they’re rare and dependent on the company offering the license. If you can transfer a license, then you’re in luck.

You can’t, under any circumstances, simply split an iTunes account into two different accounts. Licenses are tied to a single account and you may just need to bite the bullet and repurchase the songs/apps you wish to keep on a new account that is exclusive to yourself. Simply copying the songs to a new account may actually be illegal in that it violates the terms and conditions of service.

What Precautions Can Someone Take?

Make sure that services are subscribed to by the individual who will use it the most. That way (when there is a split), you can each have licenses to whatever accounts you benefit from the most. It’s cleaner that way.

It may mean having your own different iTunes accounts. I know, it sounds crazy, but let’s be honest here. There comes a time when every married couple has to make the decision to get a joint bank account or keep things separate. It’s up to you. Not every online service permits shared accounts, even among marriages.

Read terms of use carefully. The more you know about a specific account’s terms, the better prepared you’ll be for unforeseen circumstances down the road. Trust me, you don’t want to be burned by a $300 Final Cut Pro purchase being handed over to your spouse in the event of a divorce.

What about you? Have you (or someone you know) been burned by a divorce in this way? What tips would you suggest a newly wed couple take?

Woman On Fire by Vera Kratochvil