New Article: Ambiguous Divorce Agreements

Seeing more emojis? Are you confused about their meaning? For some light reading this Memorial Day weekend, my new article dealing with legal ambiguity in divorce agreements, “If it looks like a duck: Emojis, Emoticons and Ambiguity,” in the Spring 2018 Florida Bar Commentator, is now available in print and to download. Here is the abstract:

What are Emojis?

Originating in Japan in 1998, emojis are small digital images used to express an idea or an emotion in electronic communications. The term emoji is Japanese for “picture character.” Picture (pronounced “eh”), and character (pronounced moh-jee).

Today, roughly 70 percent of the public uses some type of social media. Social media has changed many of the ways in which we communicate. For one thing, social media has increased our use of emojis.

One report found that more than 92 percent of people use emojis on social media.

Emojis have spread to the business world, where nearly half of workers add emojis to professional communications, and companies use them to increase sales and brand awareness. You can order your next Domino’s with the “Slice of Pizza” emoji.

Emojis have also spread to family law courts, as parents are frequently using texts, emails and social media in order to communicate their agreements and understandings about their kids.

Ambiguous Divorce Agreements

There are unique issues with emojis, rendering them hard to interpret. This is a subject I have written about frequently. For one thing, there’s no definitive source as to what emojis mean.

That unknown can make agreements between parents about custody, visitation, temporary support in emails, texts or on social media, ambiguous. Divorce agreements are interpreted like any other contract.

Basic interpretation begins with the plain language of the contract, because the contract language is the best evidence of intent.

Courts are not supposed to rewrite terms if they are clear and unambiguous. Anyone seeking to show a court any evidence outside a fully integrated contract, must first establish that a contract is ambiguous.

Emojis and Legal Ambiguity

A contract is ambiguous when its language is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation. That’s where emojis come in, they can be very ambiguous. But why?

Emojis are also small, making them hard to read. Interpreting an emoji can depend on what kind of device they appear in. For example, a 24-inch computer monitor displays thing differently than a 4-inch phone screen.

Emojis don’t always mean the same thing universally, so there can be many different meanings depending on which country you are in. For example:


The “Folded Hands” emoji symbolize “please” and “thank you” in Asia. However, in the U.S. it means: “I’m praying,” and frequently, “high-five”!


The “Pile of Poo” emoji is a pun on the Japanese word for excrement (unko), which starts with the same “oon” sound as the word for “luck” and is complimentary in Japan. But, in the U.S. the emoji is used to express contempt. Strangely, Canadians use the emoji the most.

You can’t understand an emoji’s meaning just by looking at one. People use emojis in ways that have nothing to do with the physical objects they represent, or even what typographers intended.

There are regional, cultural and slang meanings to consider too. After all, emojis’ inherent ambiguity is one reason why they’re increasingly becoming evidence in court.

The Spring 2018 Family Law Commentator is available here.