Court proceedings are generally public information. In most jurisdictions, this includes divorce proceedings. Public policy requires all other vital records to be available to the public. Unless the court agrees to file divorce records under seal, filings in divorce proceedings become matters of public record. For example, cases that identify children or victims of sexual abuse are often sealed.
The participants in a divorce case must ask the court to file the case under seal to keep divorce documents out of the public eye. When a court files divorce records under seal, confidential or sensitive information within those records remains private and doesn't become a matter of public record. Courts can order entire documents or portions of them to be filed under seal.
The following is an overview of divorce records and privacy protections.
The Decision to File Divorce Records Under Seal
The court will not automatically seal divorce records. Parties in a divorce case must request that the court seal them. The judge must decide whether to grant a motion to seal.
To obtain a court order to seal the divorce records, the parties must present a motion stating:
- The reasons for sealing the divorce record
- The potential harm to the party
- A narrowly tailored request that does not limit the seal more than necessary
Reasons for Sealing Divorce Records
Reasons to keep divorce filings under seal include:
- Protecting children from identification in divorce records
- Protecting victims of domestic violence, including stalking or threats of future violence
- Protecting proprietary business information
- Protecting sensitive health information
Parties may also request private information be kept under seal. Names and addresses of family members, financial information in the settlement agreement, and other information could be reasons for sealing records.
False allegations or defamatory statements might be part of a request to seal records. Depending on the nature of the statements, embarrassing information might not be sufficient to seal records. The information must be harmful to the party, not just embarrassing.
Potential Harm to Party or Others
Court proceedings in America are open to the general public. Access to court records ensures transparency in court decisions and the judicial process. To seal records, a party must show that the harm they would suffer outweighs the public's right to an open court.
Family law cases have more leeway than other courts to redact or seal their records. The most common reason to seal records is to protect children in divorce. It will be easiest to show potential harm and have the documents sealed if they involve:
- Child custody
- Child support
- Visitation and travel arrangements
Other showings of harm include allowing a former stalker access to victims' or family members' addresses. Cases involving domestic violence should include a request for seal.
Some types of alleged harm may not meet the bar for seal. Claims of false allegations, defamation, or fraud, may not reach the standard of harm needed to seal records in family law court. Proving defamation may require a separate criminal case.
Other potential harm may not require the complete sealing of records. Some sensitive information, such as social security numbers or bank account numbers, can be redacted or edited in the document. Other data, such as phone numbers, are already part of the public record, so sealing or redacting them from court documents is irrelevant.
Narrowly Tailored Requests to Seal Divorce Records
A request to seal divorce records must be narrowly tailored. This means it must not remove too much information from the public record. Narrow requests to seal divorce records have a better chance than requests to seal all records in a case.
For instance, identifying confidential information, such as dollar amounts in the divorce papers or names of children or family members, and asking the court to redact those, will be more effective than requesting to seal the entire divorce record. Stating a privacy concern about three pages in a deposition and asking them to be removed is more likely to succeed than a demand that the whole divorce decree be removed.
When you have a court order to seal or redact your divorce documents, your divorce lawyer should double-check that all the records were sealed or redacted in a few days. State law may require things to be done within a specific time frame, but that does not mean things get done.
Questions About Divorce Records and Privacy? Talk to an Attorney
Divorce is emotionally traumatic for all parties, but an experienced family law attorney can guide you through the process to protect your privacy and ensure your financial security. Contact a divorce attorney in your area with your concerns about divorce records and maintaining your privacy or any other questions about the divorce process.