Among the values held dear by the American public are freedom of information and open access to government. To further these values, longstanding federal and state laws have made court records generally available to the public. However, when you're going through a divorce, you might experience mixed feelings about strangers being able to access your records—after all, who wants to have the personal details of their divorce aired in public? Here's what you need to know about when and which divorce records might be available to the public, and what you can do to protect your privacy.
The term "divorce record" is used to describe a wide range of documentation relating to a divorce. So if you're interested in protecting your privacy as much as possible, it's important to know what information is in each type of divorce record.
Documents that are commonly referred to as "divorce records" include:
Generally, divorce records are considered part of the public record. Some states have no access restrictions—anyone who's curious can request a copy of any divorce record. Most states, though, limit access to divorce records because of the personal or sensitive information they often contain. Some types of divorce records are more accessible than others.
Because divorce certificates contain only bare-bones details about a divorce, they are the most widely accessible type of divorce record—most states put few to no restrictions on who can obtain a copy of a divorce certificate. Often, anyone who's willing to pay a fee can get a copy of a divorce certificate through one of the many online court record services. Divorce certificates are also available by request from the office that keeps track of vital records in your state.
To get hold of a divorce certificate, you'll probably need to have specific information about the divorce, such as the parties' names, the case number, and the location of the court that decided the divorce case.
Recognizing that divorce decrees can contain sensitive details about a family's finances, children, or other personal matters, many states limit who can access divorce decrees. For example, a state might limit access to only the people involved in the divorce and their attorneys, or people who can demonstrate having a legal interest in the document (such as an executor of an estate).
In most states, you have to request a copy of a divorce decree directly from the court that issued the decree. Expect to pay a small fee to get a certified copy (an official copy stamped by the court clerk).
Almost every divorce court record contains sensitive, personal information. States' and courts' policies about who can access full divorce court records vary. In almost every state, someone who wishes to access a divorce court record will have to request the record from the court that decided the divorce. Many courts will give copies of divorce court records to only the parties in the case and their attorneys. People without a direct interest in the case might be allowed to only view—not copy—certain documents.
Many courts automatically redact (blackout) certain information—such as Social Security numbers and bank accounts—from the public record. (Check with the court clerk to make sure your court does this, and be sure to never include sensitive information in court filings unless absolutely necessary.)
If you want to protect any information beyond what the court automatically redacts, at least one spouse will need to request that the court "seal" (or "impound") the record. When a court seals a record, it retains a copy of the document for its own purposes, but places strict limits on who can view and copy the record. A sealed record won't be available to the general public.
The request to seal the record must include specific reasons why your privacy concerns outweigh the public's right to access the information.
Courts often grant requests to seal documents in order to keep the following information private:
If your request is successful, the judge will seal only the portion of the file that you ask for in your application. For example, if you're concerned that details about your company's finances contained in the record could harm business, the court will seal only the portions of the record that reference the company's finances—the rest of the record will remain public.
In limited circumstances, courts can grant permission for non-parties to access a sealed record. However, accessing a sealed record is difficult—anyone wanting to access a sealed record must formally petition the court and (usually) attend a hearing to explain the reasons for the request.
Couples who are worried about the public nature of a divorce case can work together in various ways to ensure the details of the divorce aren't available to the public. The most convenient method for ensuring confidentiality is to settle your divorce out of court.
Many couples are able to settle their divorce by participating in divorce mediation, a process where the parties meet with a neutral, trained mediator who helps them negotiate the terms of the divorce. Another way to settle out of court is to participate in collaborative divorce, a process where the parties and their attorneys agree to use their best efforts to settle. If they can't work things out, the spouses must hire new attorneys and start the divorce process all over.
When couples can agree to the terms of their divorce and draft a divorce settlement agreement, they can ask the court to reference the settlement agreement—but not include it—in court documents. Although other documents filed in the case would still be public, the specific details of the settlement would not be.